The latest round of Russian and U.S. diplomacy has yet to prove it can end a civil war in Syria that has already exacted well over 70,000 lives and threatened to engulf the region. But it has been enough to convince Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, to put his retirement plans on hold and serve as the diplomatic ringleader for the high-stakes negotiations.
The political conference -- which is designed to bring together Syrian officials, opposition leaders, and big-power foreign ministers -- is expected to begin in Geneva, Switzerland, around June 15 and last two to three days, though the final date has not been set in stone, according to diplomats involved in the preparation. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has committed to open the event with a speech, but he will turn over the work of mediation to Brahimi, a veteran diplomatic trouble shooter who has negotiated peace deals in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brahimi has confided to diplomats that he envisions the conference as a truncated version of the 2001 Bonn conference, where the former Algerian diplomat helped forge a transitional Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai to fill a political vacuum created by the U.S.-led military overthrow of the Taliban. The meeting will start large, with speeches by senior international dignitaries, and then shift into more intimate talks involving the warring parties.
Brahimi's goal is to gain support for the implementation of the June 2012 Geneva action plan, which outlined a roadmap for a political transition to a provisional government with full executive powers in Damascus. The Geneva pact -- which was backed by Russia and the United States -- represents the most important big-power agreement on a plan to resolve the conflict. But the deal has foundered in the face of a split over the wisdom of threatening further sanctions against the Syrian government to compel its compliance with the terms, as well as differences over the role of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's future.
There are several crucial matters that remain unresolved on the eve of talks, including the composition of the Syrian and opposition delegation, and the question of whether they will talk directly or communicate through Brahimi. The role of the United States and Russia, the key sponsors of the conference, and other major powers like Britain, China, France, and Turkey remains undecided. Some of the most controversial regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, which is arming the opposition, and Iran, which is arming the Syrian government, will not likely be invited.
So far, the Syrian government has proposed some five to six names of government representatives, including Prime Minister Wael al-Halki, Information Minister Omran Zoabi, and Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar. But the opposition has yet to select their own representatives or approve the Syrian government list.
Selecting an agreed slate has been complicated by the need to identify individuals who have sufficient authority over the Syrian combatants to compel them to accept a potential political deal, but who are not associated with human rights abuses.
The diplomacy is unfolding against a backdrop of deepening violence, not only in Syria, but in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, where fighting broke out on May 19 between residents of Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods in the town of Tripoli.
The pro-Syrian militia, Hezbollah, has sent fighters to aid Assad's forces in its battle for the town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East told the Security Council today. "The past month has seen repeated incidents of shelling from Syria into Lebanese territory that has caused casualties."
Serry also said that the U.N. secretary general "remains gravely concerned about the allegations of the use of chemical weapons." Citing "mounting reports on the use of chemical weapons" he urged the Syrian government to allow a U.N. team into the country to examine the allegations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, met in Amman, Jordan, today with the pro-opposition diplomatic coalition called the "Friends of Syria" -- a group that includes representatives of Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Kerry said they would discuss how to help the opposition fashion a slate of representatives for the Geneva talks that constitute the "broadest base possible in Syria."
"We will discuss the framework, the structure of what we think Geneva ought to be. And obviously, that will have to be discussed with the Russians, with the United Nations, and with others in order to find the formula that moves us forward most effectively," Kerry said before the meeting. "We will listen to all voices with respect to the format, to the timing, to the agenda, and to the outcomes that should be discussed."
In the meantime, the U.S. and European powers sought to increase pressure on Syria to show flexibility in Geneva. On Monday, the European Union is expected to meet on Monday to decide whether to lift or ease an arms embargo that has limited the opposition's ability to purchase weapons. Kerry, meanwhile, warned that the United States may be prepared to provide military support to the opposition. "In the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate ... in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and growing support for the opposition in order to permit them to continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country."
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Courtesty of the United Nations: Jean-Marc Ferre
The 193-member U.N. General Assembly today "strongly" condemned the Syrian government for its "indiscriminate" shelling and bombing of civilian populations and the commission of "widespread and systematic" human rights in a conflict that has dragged on for more than 2 years and left more than 70,000 people dead.
The resolution -- which was co-sponsored by most Arab and Western governments -- was adopted by a vote of 107 to 12, with 59 abstentions. Today's action drove a wedge between the United States, which backed it, and Russia, which opposed it, at a time when the two powers are struggling to start talks between the Syrian government and the opposition on a political transition.
The General Assembly measure is not legally binding on Syria, but it represents the latest in a series of U.N. resolutions highlighting Syria's growing isolation, and ensures that Damascus will continue to face intense scrutiny at the United Nations. But the large number of abstentions, particularly among African countries, reflected broader international disquiet over the resolution's promotion of the Syrian opposition's claim to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The resolution's drafting was spearheaded by Qatar, a Persian Gulf sheikdom that has been arming the Syrian opposition. Qatar has been seeking for several weeks to secure broad international support for a resolution that would elevate the Syrian National Coalition's standing at the United Nations.
The final text stopped short of recognizing the Syrian opposition, though it included a provision that notes the "wide international acknowledgement" of the Syrian coalition "as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people."
Damascus and its political allies, including Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran, denounced the measure as one-sided, saying any decision about the legitimacy of Syria's leadership should be agreed by Syrians. The resolution, they claimed, also unfairly targeted the government for criticism while making no mention of opposition atrocities or a long string of terrorist attacks by anti-government extremists. While the resolution condemns violence by all combatants and demands that all parties halt human rights abuses, it largely ignores specific allegations of wrongdoing by the armed opposition and anti-government extremists.
"This draft resolution seeks to escalate the crisis and fuel violence in Syria" by undermining the government through the recognition of a "fake representative" of the Syrian people, said Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Al-Jaafari.
Najib Chadban, the Syrian National Coalition's representative to the United States and the United Nations, welcomed the vote for bringing the question of Syria back to the United Nations after months of inaction and "keeping the Syria alive." But he acknowledged "a lot of Syrians are not very happy with the inability of this organization to do something to end the killing." Chadban said the resolution calls on the secretary general to report and that he would begin to lobby other government to transfer the Syrian seat from the government to the opposition when the U.N. credential committee meets in September.
Russia's deputy ambassador, Alexander Pankin, said it was "irresponsible and counterproductive" of the resolution's sponsors to "introduce division" among U.N. members at a delicate moment in U.S. and Russian diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Syria. The world needs "a unified approach; we don't need destructive initiatives her at the United Nations."
But Rosemary DiCarlo, the second-highest ranking U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said resolution was perfectly consistent with Washington and Moscow's peace efforts "The Assad regime, drawing upon an arsenal of heavy weapons, aircraft, ballistic missiles, and -- potentially chemical weapons -- has killed or injured untold numbers of civilians who for many months manifested their opposition purely through peaceful protest," she said. "In our view, this resolution will send a clear message that the political solution we all seek is the best way to end the suffering of the people of Syria."
The resolution includes a list of longstanding U.N. demands that have never been honored by the Syrian government: For instance, it demands that Syrian authorities "immediately release" thousands of political prisoners; provide "full and unfettered" access to an international commission of inquiry probing rights abuses; and allow unimpeded access to humanitarian aid workers to Syrian civilians, particularly in rebel-controlled areas that can only be reached by crossing conflict lines, or by entering through Turkey. The resolution will ask a U.N. special human rights researcher to present a report in 90 days on the status of Syria's internally displaced civilians. It also asks U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to report on the resolution's implementation within 30 days, a provision that will guarantee Syria remains a topic of debate at the United Nations.
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For a rare afternoon at U.N. headquarters, the U.S. and Iranian governments took a break from bashing one another. Instead, they were getting ready to go to the mat.
The U.N. cafeteria provided the stage for a bout of international sports diplomacy, as American, Iranian, and Russian wrestlers gathered for lunch as well as an opportunity to rally behind a common cause: appealing to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to keep wrestling in the Olympics.
Today's U.N. event -- sponsored by USA wrestling, FILA, and the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, and hosted by the U.N. Correspondent's Association -- comes one day before the Rumble on the Rails at Grand Central Station, a wrestling contest that will match up the world's best Greco Roman wrestlers from Iran, the world's top wrestling team, with the United States and Russia, two other national powerhouses.
It provided a forum for scripted diplomatic pronouncements about the importance of preserving the sport from senior Iranian and Russian diplomats, who recalled wrestling's long, revered place in their country's history. State Department officials were present at the event, but the U.S. government played a low-key role, absent from the list of speakers. Instead, a group of American wrestling advocates, including the actor Billy Baldwin, a former wrestler himself, took the podium to speak up for the sport on America's behalf.
Not surprisingly it wasn't Baldwin, but a young Olympian that best captured the spirit of the event, arguing that Greco Roman wrestling had something to teach international diplomats and politicians.
"We can get together, me and the Iranians and the Russians, and we can go out on the mat and physically do everything possible to beat the crap out of one another," explained Jake Herbert, 28, an American silver medalist in the 2012 Olympics. "No one is going to get killed; no one is going to get injured; you're going to leave it out on the mat and then be friends. We're united -- Iran, Russia, and the USA -- all through sports, something they have never been able to do through politics before and something they should be able to look at and learn."
In fact, the event provided a rare respite from the diplomatic clashes over a range of issues -- from Iran's nuclear ambitions to the international response to the Syria crisis -- that more typically define U.S. relations with Tehran. On Monday, Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, sounded off on Iran's upcoming assumption, through rotation, of the presidency of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament (CD), calling it "unfortunate and highly inappropriate."
"The United States continues to believe that countries that are under Chapter VII sanctions for weapons proliferation or massive human-rights abuses should be barred from any formal or ceremonial positions in U.N. bodies," she said. "While the presidency of the CD is largely ceremonial and involves no substantive responsibilities, allowing Iran -- a country that is in flagrant violation of its obligations under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and to the IAEA Board of Governors -- to hold such a position runs counter to the goals and objectives of the Conference on Disarmament itself. As a result, the United States will not be represented at the ambassadorial level during any meeting presided over by Iran."
Despite the administration's diplomatic campaign to isolate Iran, the United States has largely embraced the effort to improve relations with Iran through wrestling. American wrestlers have competed against the Iranians 11 times since 1998, when USA Wrestling sponsored its first match in Iran in decades -- a 1998 competition at the Iranian Takhti Club in Tehran. In February of this year, the U.S. wrestling team competed in Tehran.
Just days before, on Feb. 12, the International Olympic Committee executive board recommended that wrestling no long be considered a core sport at the Olympics. A final decision will be made in September.
Mike Novogratz, an investor who helped organize the Grand Central wrestling matches through his organization Beat the Streets Wrestling, said it was an "absurd decision" by the IOC board to propose remove wrestling from the Olympics in 2020, describing it was one of the most popular sports in the Muslim world.
Wrestling advocates, he said, are seeking to use the New York event, as well as an upcoming match in Los Angeles, to raise international awareness about the sport and convince the IOC to reverse its decision. As a fall back, he said, wrestling organizers, have been considering asking the Olympic governing body to readmit wrestling as a new sport. In order to do that, they are considering improving the sports marketing component and implementing some changes in the rules to make it more accessible to younger audiences who have had trouble understanding the sport's sometime arcane rules.
It wouldn't hurt to see the Obama administration embracing the sport of wrestling with the same passion as Russian President Vladimir Putin and outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Dan Gable, a 1972 Olympic gold medal winner who, as a coach, led the University of Iowa to 16 NCCA championships. "I really feel both in Russia and Iran wrestling comes right out of their government offices," he said. "Our president, Obama, he's not involved as much."
He said Obama had good reason to take an interest, noting that another American president from Illinois had a keen interest in the sport, one that he hoped Obama might be compelled to emulate. "Lincoln was a wrestler; he held matches on the White House lawn."
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It felt for a moment like the old days.
In a bold display of big-power diplomacy reminiscent of the waning years of the Cold War, the top U.S. and Russian diplomats met in Moscow this week to announce plans for ending a festering regional dispute in Syria that has divided the world.
After two years of diplomatic deadlock, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced plans to convene an international conference to press for a political transition in Syria. Speaking at a joint press conference in Moscow with Lavrov at his side, Kerry affirmed the two governments' shared commitment to "a negotiated settlement as the essential means of ending the bloodshed, addressing humanitarian disaster in Syria, and addressing the problem of the security of chemical weapons and forestalling further regional instability."
The proposed conference -- which aims to drag representatives from Syrian government and the insurgency together -- offers more than a referendum on the prospects for peace in Syria. It marks a major test of whether two major powers can still shape events in a region where they are competing for influence with a new generation of players, including jihadist militants with no loyalty to Moscow or Washington; a calculating regime desperately clinging for control; and a growing roster of allies and enemies, including Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran, that appear committed to resolving the conflict through the use of force. Even Britain and France -- two stalwart American allies who officially support the U.S. and Russian mediation -- have been ramping up pressure within Europe for greater outside military support for the Syrian rebels.
The agreement was applauded at the United Nations, where U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.N.-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, fear a military victory by the Syrian opposition will plunge the region into greater sectarian violence. Brahimi, like his predecessor Kofi Annan, have viewed the big powers -- particularly the permanent five (P-5) members of the Security Council -- led by the United States and Russia -- as the components in forging a peace alliance in the Security Council to pressure the parties to stop fighting.
"This is welcome; this is good news," Jan Eliasson, the U.N. deputy secretary general, told reporters today. Eliasson also noted that Brahimi, who had informed U.N. diplomats that he would resign, had agreed to a request by Ban stay on to support the U.S.-Russian initiative. We "now hope that all partners will seize this opportunity and really contribute to a political settlement."
But the U.S.-Russian diplomatic initiative was received with skepticism from U.N.-based diplomats and observers, who say the former Cold War powers no longer have the influence they once had to call the shots. "Lakhdar Brahimi is of the old school; he is always saying, like, ‘Mr. Annan, I can't act if the P-5 isn't united,'" said one senior European diplomat. "It's not convincing. Even if the P-5 were united I don't see what difference it would make. The people are fighting, their survival is at stake."
Some observers see the proposed Syria conference as delaying tactic, a new diplomatic initiative aimed as much at lessening international pressure for U.S. military intervention in Syria than on a workable vehicle for ending the war. "I think there is a real sense that this is a mechanism for the United States and the Russians to buy time, and so there is going to be a huge amount of skepticism going into this conference," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "I think the conference alienates the Saudis and Qataris, and disappoints the British and French -- who have been driving hard for a more aggressive line and using the chemical weapons [claims] to strengthen their case."
Gowan said the U.S. diplomatic initiative with Russia will apply "marginal pressure" on President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate a political settlement -- "though I think Assad will remain relatively confident the Russians won't throw him to the wolves." But Gowan added that Washington's diplomatic gambit may ultimately undercut what little "U.S. prestige" still exists among the rebels.
Salman Shaikh., the director of the Brookings Doha Center, an outpost of the Washington-based think-tank, which receives funding from Qatar, said there remain fundamental differences between the United States and Russia that could imperil an agreement. For instance, neither side has settled the question of what role President Assad would play in Syria during a political transition. The rebels have so far refused any talks about a political transition that did not foresee Assad's removal from power. Kerry told reporters in Jordan today that "in our judgment, President Assad will not be a component" of a transitional government. But it remains unclear whether Russia agrees with that position, or whether Assad would retain his title during a political transition.
"Russia and the U.S. still seem to be apart on agreeing on Assad's future," said Shaikh. "There is muddle and differing interpretations on the framing of this conference, reflecting earlier disagreements on the interpretation of the Geneva Agreement of last year. Until these are agreed, [Moscow and Washington] will not be able shape a viable political solution."
"Furthermore," Shaikh added. "I doubt that the U.S. will succeed in getting the ‘official opposition,' the Syrian National Council, to the negotiating table if any political solution leaves open the possibility of Assad remaining in power."
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The Swedish scientist tapped by the United Nations to lead the hunt for evidence of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, has informed top diplomats that he is in a race against time, and that the key signatures of a chemical attack -- traces of chemical agents captured in soil and human blood, hair, and tissues -- will be increasingly difficult to obtain as each day passes.
The passage of time is only one the many challenges confronting Ake Sellstrom, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq. Sellstrom has not been allowed into Syria to collect first-hand evidence to test conflicting claims by Syria's main combatants and outside governments that chemical weapons have been used - both by the Syrian government and rebels. The inspectors -- who are operating out of offices in the Hague and staging in Cyprus -- are confronting a dizzying area of claims and counterclaims blaming both government forces and insurgents with introducing chemical agents into a civil war that has already resulted in the death of well over 70,000 people.
Over the weekend, former U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who is serving on a U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, added to the confusion, telling an Italian-Swiss news agency that she had "strong, concrete suspicions" -- though not "incontrovertible proof" -- that insurgents had used the chemical agent, sarin. Her account -- which is based on interviews from Syrian refugees and reinforces the claims of Bashar al-Assad's government -- contradicts assertions by British and French intelligence agencies that they had credible evidence that it was Syrian forces that used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians. However, the commission of inquiry subsequently put out a statement saying that it "wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons by any parties to the conflict."
Britain and France, meanwhile, have dialed back their claims in recent days, indicating that, like the U.S. assessment, they lack absolute proof. "It is limited evidence but there is growing evidence that we have seen too of the use of chemical weapons, probably by the regime," British Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC.
For the time being, Sellstrom and his team of chemists, health officials, and munitions experts will be required to rely on evidence furnished by Syrian combatants and foreign governments; witness and victim testimony; or blood and tissue samples collected from potential victims in refugee camps outside Syria. But evidence collected so far from the scene of the crime, or compiled by a foreign intelligence agency, will be vulnerable to challenges, according to experts on chemical weapons. "If you are sitting in Cyprus and you're getting this stuff second hand it will be a very weak element," said Charles Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector who led the CIA Iraq Survey Group study that concluded that Baghdad had destroyed most of its weapons of mass destruction shortly after the first Gulf War. For those interested in "promoting ambiguity" about the veracity of the findings "you can make a lot of mischief," said Duelfer. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was "brilliant' at sowing doubt about the integrity of the U.N.'s inspections. For instance, he noted that Lavrov has accused U.N. inspectors of possibly doctoring chemical samples to "taint the evidence," Duelfer recalled. In the end, said Duelfer, unless Moscow can be convinced to support this effort this is "just going to be a big mess."
If the risks mission failure are high -- and Deulfer and other top former U.N. weapons inspectors say they are -- Sellstrom has shown little sign of stress.
Another Swede, Rolf Ekeus, a former chief of the U.N. Special Commission for Iraq (UNSCOM) and a mentor to Sellstrom, said he was taken aback by his protégé's calm when he ran into him at the Swedish Foreign Ministry shortly after his appointment.
"What struck me was that he didn't appear afraid or scared to be facing this challenge," said Ekeus. "I think he should be scared. But he has tremendous experience in these matters and I think he was a little excited to bring that experience to bear on a complex new problem."
Sellstrom was recruited by Ekeus in the early 1990s to conduct inspections for UNSCOM in Iraq. Ekeus describes him as a "charming, good humored," inspector who was respected by his colleagues as well as his Iraqi counterparts. Sellstrom, he recalls, was more diplomatic than some of the more senior U.S. and British weapons inspectors, who had a reputation for gruffness in their exchanges with the Iraqis. ("We used to refer to them lovingly as the grumpy old men," said one former weapons inspector.)
"[Sellstrom] would be a natural leader," said Ekeus. "He has few enemies. Not even the Iraqis were terribly angry at him."
Faced with Iraqi accusations of bias by the inspectors, Richard Butler -- a former Australian diplomat who succeeded Ekeus as UNSCOM's chief -- selected Sellstrom in 1998 to lead a group of outside experts reviewing UNSCOM's assessment of Iraq's biological weapons program. Iraq claimed that it had provided UNSCOM with a full account, but that the inspectors unfairly refused to believe them. Sellstrom traveled to Iraq to interview top Iraqi officials about the biological weapons program. During the visit, then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, called Sellstrom into his office and tried to convince him that Iraq had complied with the U.N.'s demands. "Aziz used his personal authority and charm to encourage Sellstrom to change his tough approach," said Ekeus. "Sellstrom was not in a position to accommodate Aziz because of the lack of satisfactory responses from the Iraqi experts. In the end, [Sellstrom's report] report outlined several Iraqi shortcomings.... It was a disaster for the Iraqi side."
Ekeus cites the anecdote to highlight Sellstrom's mental toughness in the face of challenges from powerful players, an attribute that will be critical in pursuing any potential forthcoming Syrian investigation, in what's sure to be a highly charged political environment. But the episode also underscores the limitations of weapons inspections, even in what was the most intrusive weapons inspection regime in history. Baghdad persistently withheld documents, witnesses, and physical evidence of their weapons program in discussions with U.N. inspectors, fueling suspicions of hidden programs. But in the end, Aziz was not so far off the mark. Iraq's biological weapons program had largely been shelved after the Gulf War in 1991.
Former U.N. inspectors say Iraq offers a cautionary tale about the misuses and abuses of foreign intelligence. But they may yet prove to be a value asset to Sellstrom.
Hans Blix, the former chief of the U.N. Monitoring Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC), which succeeded UNSCOM in the hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, said that American and British intelligence failures leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq should not lead Sellstrom to "ignore or reject" the findings of Western intelligence in Syria. "They have sources and contacts that have value but it should be evaluated with professional, critical attitude," he said.
Blix said that Sellstrom is an "old hand" in the chemical and biological weapons field and that his experience should be "put to good use" in Syria. But Blix cautioned that Sellstrom would be wise to "leave the political judgment" to the diplomats. If his team "sticks to an absolutely professional standard the outside pressure should be irrelevant to them. And I think that attitude serves the world best and it also serves the U.K. and the United States."
The technical challenges, while daunting, are not insurmountable. Sellstrom has informed diplomats that if chemical agents have been used in Syria, the victims would possess traces of the chemical agent in their body for up to about 3 months.
Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior researcher at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, says that traces of certain second-tier chemical agents like chlorine, which was reportedly used in Aleppo, would likely have evaporated by now. The nerve gas sarin, he said, could likely still be "detected in miniscule quantities" if one gets to the scene of the crime.
"It's possible to detect [sarin byproducts] for quite a while. I'm talking weeks, perhaps months, depending on the evaporation rates. But it is inherently "unstable and would break down pretty fast."
Zanders also noted that hospital records -- particularly autopsy reports -- could provide important clues to the possible use of chemical agents. But he noted that there was no guarantee that Sellstrom would gain access to information. In the meantime, Zanders said, he remains skeptical that sarin was ever used.
"I have serious doubts about these allegations," he said. "Nothing which I have seen from pictures or film footage have shown what I would expect to see from a sarin attack."
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Before reports of chemical weapons use surfaced earlier this year in Syria, Rolf Ekeus, a prominent Swedish arms control specialist who headed up the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the 1990s, had been exploring ways to learn more about the chemical stockpiles in Syria and several other countries that were beyond the reach of the world's chemical weapons watchdog.
As chairman of a senior advisory group for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ekeus privately advocated that the agency appoint a special emissary that could reach out to those governments -- Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan -- that had never ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, and were therefore not subject to international scrutiny. (Israel and Myanmar have signed the convention.)
The goal was two-fold: encourage these outliers to join the treaty body, and in the meantime, gather some insights into the scope of their programs, particularly in Syria, where international concern about the fate of the country's chemical stockpile was coming into relief as the country slid deeper into civil war.
But Ekeus encountered resistance from Ahmet Uzumcu, a former Turkish diplomat who serves as executive director of the Hague-based OPCW, and who vigorously opposed the initiative. The agency's executive council, which includes Britain, China, France, Iran, Russia, and the United States, also showed little interested in the proposal. They said "absolutely not," Ekeus recalled during a phone interview from his home in Stockholm. "These countries are not a party to the treaty so we have nothing to do with them," he was told. "I wanted a permanent arrangement for dialogue with non-members of the convention," he said. "Everyone was against it."
Ekeus said his "feeble effort" to reach out to these countries "was killed" in discussions by his advisory group, squandering an opportunity to improve the organization's understanding of the Syrian chemical weapons program.
Ekeus's disclosure comes weeks after Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist and former Ekeus protégé, was appointed to lead a U.N. mission investigating conflicting claims about the uses of chemical weapons in Syria. Sellstrom -- who was recruited by Ekeus in the 1990s to hunt for chemical weapons in Iraq -- is relying on the OPCW to supply most of his team's 15 inspectors. They have little first-hand knowledge of Syria's chemical weapons program, according to Ekeus.
The Syrian government insists that rebels attacked Syrian forces with chemical weapons on March 19 outside the city of Aleppo, But Syrian opposition leaders, along with Britain, France, and Israel, have counterclaimed that Syria fired chemical weapons at its own people on at least three separate incidents. President Barack Obama said the United States believes chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but that there is insufficient evidence to prove who did it.
It remains unclear why the OPCW and its board members objected to the Ekeus request. A spokesman for the chemical weapons watchdog, Michael Luhan, declined to comment on the matter. Earlier this week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged countries that have not ratified the chemical weapons convention to do so.
Perhaps it is unlikely to expect that Syria, which does not publically acknowledge it possesses chemical weapons, would reveal its most guarded national security secrets to an international emissary. Ekeus said that organization's failure to proactively court the Syrians has left them in the dark.
"There is very little knowledge about what they [the Syrians] really have because the organization does not want to touch governments, which are not parties to the treaties," he said. "My proposal was that they should try to build some skills, but now it's too late. Now, Sellstrom has to start from scratch."
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Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria has informed senior U.N. diplomats that he intends to resign in the coming weeks, marking the end of another doomed U.N. diplomatic effort to end a bloody civil war that has left well over 70,000 dead in Syria, according to U.N.-based diplomats.
The decision pitches the world’s main diplomatic initiative on Syria into a state of crisis at a time when the United States and its allies are weighing a response to reports to new intelligence reports indicating that Syria may have used chemical weapons against his people. It comes as Ake Sellstrom, the U.N.'s newly appointed chemical weapons inspector, arrived in Washington for meetings with U.S. officials on the Syrian program.
The United States has sought to persuade Brahimi to put off his plans to step down until after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry concludes a May 7-8 visit to Moscow for meetings on Syria and other matters with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Martin Nesirky, chief spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declined a request to confirm Brahimi’s resignation plans. But a U.N.-based diplomat from a government that has been briefed on the matter by Brahimi said he had confirmed his plans. "He said he’s going to resign," said the diplomat. But he said he would delay a formal announcement to allow the U.N. to "arrangement for a transition."
The U.N. secretary general, meanwhile, has been in discussions with the U.N.’s five major powers -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- about the future of U.N. diplomatic efforts after Brahimi's departure.
Brahimi, a veteran U.N. troubleshooter who has led major peace efforts from Afghanistan to Iraq, has voiced increasing despair in recent weeks over the dwindling prospects for a political transition in Syria. He has faulted the Syrian government and the armed opposition for failing to recognize the futility of a military victory and the need for a negotiated settlement.
"I am personally, profoundly sorry that my own efforts have produce so little," he told the Security Council in a closed-door meeting last month. "I apologize to the Syrian people for having, in the end, done so little for them during these past eight months and to you, in this council, for having had only sad news to report to you."
One senior Western diplomat who met with Brahimi in recent weeks said that the U.N. envoy had expressed frustration with a March 6 decision by the Arab League to adopt a resolution authorizing the Syrian National Coalition, the main Syrian opposition group, to represent Syria at the Arab League. The resolution, he explained to the Security Council last month, constituted a recognition that "no dialogue or negotiations are possible or necessary."
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Yesterday, I wrote a story -- published in the Washington Post and posted on this blog -- detailing how flawed intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program had cast a shadow over an ongoing effort to establish the facts surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. A former inspector from the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq took issue with my characterization of the Iraq effort as the "fruitless pursuit of lethal stockpiles that had long before been destroyed" and directed me to an official list of UNSCOM achievements.
It is true that UNSCOM was responsible for identifying and destroying large numbers of dormant chemical and biological weapons in Saddam's arsenals. But U.N. weapons inspections endured for so long -- more than 15 years -- because Iraq had secretly destroyed many of its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the summer of 1991, telling the U.N. it had feared U.S. military retaliation if the stocks were ever discovered.
U.N. inspectors -- unable to obtain persuasive documentary proof from the Iraqis that the weapons had been destroyed -- engaged in a largely "fruitless" effort to find them or corroborate Iraq's claims that they no longer existed. It was not until after Saddam Hussein's overthrow that the CIA's Iraq Survey Group -- headed by a former U.N. inspector, Charles Duelfer -- provided a definitive account indicating that Iraq had destroyed most of its chemical and biological weapons programs by 1991. Here's a link to UNSCOM's official achievements page for a fuller list of weapons destroyed.
"UNSCOM has uncovered significant undeclared proscribed weapons programmes, destroyed elements of these programmes so far identified, including equipment, facilities and materials, and has been attempting to map out and verify the full extent of these programmes in the face of Iraq's serious efforts to deceive and conceal," reads the UNSCOM statement.
"Examples of what has been uncovered since 1991 include: the existence of Iraq's offensive biological warfare programme; the chemical nerve agent VX and other advanced chemical weapons capabilities; and Iraq's indigenous production of proscribed missiles engines. Following these discoveries, UNSCOM has directed and supervised the destruction or rendering harmless of several identified facilities and large quantities of equipment for the production of chemical and biological weapons as well as proscribed long-range missiles."
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A few days ago, a little-known Swedish scientist with a career devoted to studying lethal warfare agents paid a quiet visit to London. He was there to examine evidence that British officials believe shows that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against their own people.
Ake Sellstrom's confidential mission marked the first stage in a fledgling U.N. investigation into claims that the nerve agent sarin was used in battles in at least three Syrian cities since last December. The inquiry has once again thrust the United Nations into the center of a hunt for weapons of mass destruction.
For U.N. inspectors, the new inquiry is reminiscent of the days when they scoured Iraq's deserts and industrial parks more than a decade ago in pursuit of lethal stockpiles of chemical weapons that had long before been destroyed and nuclear facilities that no longer existed.
There are, to be sure, stark differences between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and President Bashar al-Assad's Syria. For one, the United States, which led the push for war in Iraq, appears reluctant to enter the war in Syria. For another, U.N. inspectors may never be permitted to step foot in Syria to examine the sites in question, making it extremely difficult to establish definitively whether chemical weapons were used and by whom.
But officials at U.N. headquarters also see the parallels and potential pitfalls between Iraq and Syria. Among them is a big-power rift between the United States and Russia and the reactivation of several veterans of the Iraq inspections, including Sellstrom. As happened with Iraq, any findings by the U.N. team will fuel an international debate about the wisdom of military intervention in Syria.
Its conclusions also will test the reliability of Western intelligence agencies, particularly in the United States and Britain, whose flawed intelligence served as the basis for the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "The echoes of weapons inspections in Iraq are inescapable," said Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, who managed his government's Iraq policy at the United Nations from 1997 to 2002.
Read the entire story, which ran in the Washington Post, here.
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon renewed an appeal to Syria to allow U.N. chemical weapons experts into the country, saying that on-site inspections "are essential if the United Nations is to be able to establish the facts and clear up all the doubts surrounding this issue."
The U.N. chief's remarks, delivered with the head U.N. chemical weapons inspector, Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, at his side, followed allegations by several countries, including Britain, France, Israel, and the United States, that chemical weapons were likely used in Syria.
The Syrian government invited the U.N. last month to conduct an investigation into its claims that rebels attacked Army forces with chemical weapons in a March 19 attack near Aleppo that left 26 people dead.
But Syria balked after Britain and France urged the U.N. chief to also investigate opposition claims that the government used chemical weapons in three cities: Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs.
Last week, President Barack Obama added his voice to the controversy, claiming that "we now have some evidence that chemical weapons have been used on the populations in Syria. Now, these are preliminary assessments; they're based on our intelligence gathering. We have varying degrees of confidence about the actual use, but there are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used."
Speaking in advance of a meeting with Sellstrom on the status of the U.N. probe, Ban said that he took "seriously the recent intelligence report of the United States about the use of chemical weapons in Syria" and urged the "Syrian authorities to allow the investigation to proceed without delay and without any conditions."
Ban said that that "a credible and comprehensive inquiry requires full access to the sites where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used," noting that an advance team of U.N. inspectors is already position in Cyprus, ready to deploy inside Syria within 24 to 48 hours of receiving a green light from authorities in Damascus.
In the meantime, Sellstrom travelled to London last Monday to examine physical evidence, including soil samples contaminated with a sarin-like agent -- that Britain claims indicates the government used chemical weapons. Ban said last week that the United Nations has already been in contact with the United States to discuss its claims. "Even while waiting for Syrian consent to enter the country, they have been doing what they have to do and what they can to gather and analyze available information," Ban said. "These activities include possible visits to relevant capitals."
"This is a crucial moment in our efforts to get the team on the ground to carry out its important task," Ban said. "Today, 29 April, is the annual Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Chemical Warfare. As we address these allegations, I encourage all involved to uphold their responsibilities in enabling us to properly police these heinous weapons of massive destruction."
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The U.N. Security Council this morning authorized the creation of a new force of 12,640 U.N. peacekeepers to consolidate French military gains against Islamist militants in northern Mali.
The new force -- to be called the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Force (MINUSMA) and comprised primarily of African soldiers -- is expected to secure several northern towns, where an insurgency by Islamic militants and Tuareg separatists was recently put down by French special forces and their feeble Malian army allies.
The council's action comes as the French military -- which intervened last January in Mali at the government's invitation to repulse what they feared was an all-out offensive on the capital -- is looking to withdraw most of its forces from Mali, and to place the U.N. in command of thousands of African troops that have already deployed in Mali in support of the French operation.
But the mandate adopted by the 15-nation council reflected the continuing uncertainty about the durability of France's military successes in Mali. A July 1 timetable for transferring peacekeeping authority to the United Nations is contingent on the further assessment of the threat posed to the peacekeepers by the armed militants. Today's resolution also authorizes French troops, operating under the command of the French government, to use military force to deter any threats against the U.N. peacekeepers.
France -- which currently has about 4,000 troops in Mali -- is hoping to scale back its presence by the end of the year, leaving a more permanent force of about 1,000 troops to carry on counterterrorism operations against remnants of the insurgency, and when needed, protect U.N. peacekeepers.
The French role has proven controversial within U.N. circles. While the U.N. is grateful that France will provide a last line of protection against the insurgents, it has expressed some misgivings about the risks of being too closely associated with a military counterterrorism campaign, fearing it would expose U.N. personnel in Mali and beyond to reprisal by extremist groups.
The U.N. resolution -- which was drafted by France -- condemns the Islamists' January 10 offensive towards southern Mali and welcomes the French decision to intervene to "stop the offensive of terrorist, extremist and armed groups." But it assigns no explicit combat role for the peacekeeping mission.
The mission -- which will be headed by a U.N. special representative -- will undertake several tasks, including securing strategic towns in northern Mali, promoting reconciliation between the Malian government, Tuareg separatists, and other groups in northern Mali that denounce any affiliation with extremist groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The U.N. will also help Mali -- which saw a military coup last year -- prepare the ground for a democratic transition, including "free, fair, transparent and inclusive" presidential and legislative elections, to be held respectively on July 7 and July 21.
The U.N. peacekeepers will be granted limited authority to protect civilians "under imminent threat of physical violence" if they are able and if such attacks occur in the area where the U.N. is present. They will also monitor human rights violations, including those committed by Malian government forces; help protect cultural and historical landmarks; use "all means necessary, within the limits of their capacities and areas of deployment" to help the Malians; and "as feasible and appropriate" hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes.
The resolution hints -- but does not include explicit orders -- that the U.N. could use that authority to apprehend any future suspects wanted by the International Criminal Court.
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The United States has abandoned an initiative to authorize a U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on human rights abuses in Western Sahara in the face of intensive resistance from Morocco, which exercises military control over the former Spanish colony.
Last week, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pushed for a broader mandate for the U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on rights abuses in Western Sahara and in Tindouf, Algeria, where more than 100,000 Sahrawi refugees live in a cluster of desert encampments.
The initial move -- which was applauded by human rights advocates -- encountered intense resistance from Morocco. Last week, Rabat protested the U.S. action by cancelling joint U.S.-Moroccan military exercises. The Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, also objected to the U.S. move in a letter to the White House. Morocco made clear that they would not allow the human rights monitors into Western Sahara.
The former Spanish possession is Africa's only remaining non-self-governing territory, with some 500,000 people in a sparsely populated desert expanse the size of Britain. Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, when the Spanish withdrew. Mauritania ultimately abandoned its claim, and Morocco claimed their share of the territory in 1979. Morocco -- aided by France's diplomacy -- has fiercely and successfully resisted efforts by the Polisario Front, which enjoys diplomatic support from Algeria, to claim independence.
The Algerian-backed Polisario rebels fought Moroccan troops until 1991, when a U.N. brokered ceasefire called for a referendum that would allow Saharans the ability to vote on an independence referendum. But Morocco has never allowed such a vote to occur, and now insists that Western Sahara remain as an autonomous part of Morocco. Morocco, however, has been unable to convince any other government to recognize its claim to Western Sahara.
For years, the government in Rabay has successfully blocked a raft of initiative by states, including Britain, to grant the U.N. mission a role in monitoring human rights abuses.
Last week, Rice surprised her counterparts in the so-called Friends of Western Sahara group -- which includes the governments of the United States, France, Britain, Spain and Russia -- by indicating that Washington would press for authorization of U.N. human rights monitors in a Security Council resolution renewing the U.N. peacekeeping mission's mandate for another year. But the proposal faced resistance in the U.N. Security Council from Morocco, the council's lone Arab government, and other key powers like France, China, and Russia.
Earlier this week, the United States dropped the proposal. The council is now set to vote tomorrow on a resolution that would renew the peacekeeping mandate, but without human rights monitors. Instead, the resolution offers far softer language stressing the importance of human rights, and encouraging key players to promote human rights and develop "independent and credible measures" to ensure those rights are respected.
Senior Security Council diplomats said that the United States had underestimated the depth of Moroccan opposition. They also complained that the U.S. delegation had failed to adequately consult with its key partners, including Britain, France, and Spain, before pressing ahead with the initiative.
However, one U.N. diplomat defending the U.S. position countered: "Not only did the U.S. coordinate with its allies and partners in the same timeframe as they typically do, but the positions of some important members of the Friends Groups had softened considerably on human rights."
Ahmad Boukhari, the U.N. representative of the Polisario Front, said that a stronger U.S. push could have resulted in a tougher resolution, but that he considered it a "moral victory" that the United States even put the matter on the table. Asked why the initiative was dropped, he said, "There were some difficulties whose nature is unknown to me."
The Moroccan mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.
Human rights advocates, meanwhile, expressed disappointment at the U.S. reversal. "The U.S. starting position was right on target, and had it prevailed would likely have contributed to an improvement of human rights conditions both in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps around Tindouf, in Algeria," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "Sadly the U.S. neither stuck to its guns or secured a compromise allowing enhanced human rights monitoring. Moroccan intransigence and the lack of vocal support by allies such as the UK did not help."
Britain, he noted, had previously supported the U.N. human rights mission in the past "and should have done so vocally again this year."
A spokeswoman for the British mission to the United Nations, Iona Thomas, said: "The United Kingdom strongly supports the upholding of human rights in Western Sahara. We welcome that the resolution, if adopted, will emphasize the importance of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf camps."
The United States move followed a report earlier this month by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who urged "further international engagement" with the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf. "Given ongoing reports of human rights violations the need for independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained monitoring of the human right situations in both Western Sahara and the camps becomes ever more pressing."
The U.N. Security Council has been pressing Morocco to accept greater scrutiny of its human rights record. Last year, Rabat agreed to allow periodic visits by independent U.N. human rights experts, and experts from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"From the outset, our aim has been a renewal of MINURSO's mandate that is consistent with our goal of bringing about a peaceful, sustainable, and mutually agreed solution to the conflict whereby the human rights of all individuals are respected," said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "As the secretary general underscored in his recent report on Western Sahara, human rights remains a serious issue that deserves the council's attention."
"The draft resolution contains additional language this year encouraging enhanced efforts and further progress on human rights," he added. "Human rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps will continue to have the full attention of the U.N. Security Council and the United States, and we will be monitoring progress closely over the coming year."
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Britain and France have informed the United Nations there is credible evidence that Syria has fired chemical weapons more than once in the past several months, according to senior U.N.-based diplomats and officials briefed on the accounts.
In letters to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the two European powers have detailed at least three instances of suspected chemical weapons used in or around the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus, since last December. The claims are based on a range of corroborating evidence -- including nerve agent soil samples, witness interviews, opposition sources, and accounts by medical experts who observed victims' symptoms, according to diplomats..
If proven, the allegations would provide the first hard evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war. And it would increase political pressure on the Obama administration to take steps to halt their future use.
President Barack Obama has warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "game changer" for the United States. Following the Aleppo incident, Obama said the United States would "investigate thoroughly exactly what happened" and that he had instructed "teams to work closely with all other countries in the region and international organizations and institutions to find out precisely whether this red line was crossed."
But diplomats say the United States has responded cautiously. The United States, said one Security Council diplomat, has been "less activist on this" than Britain and France. "You can draw your conclusions as to why that might be."
The Europeans' presentation of their findings to the United Nations are in part aimed at countering claims by the Syrian government that armed opposition elements fired chemical weapons at Syrian forces on March 19, killing 26 people, including Syrian troops. European diplomats acknowledge that Syrian troops may have been exposed to a chemical agent during the March 19 attack, but they claim that they were hit in a "friendly fire" attack by a Syrian shell that missed an opposition target.
In making its case, Britain informed Ban in a confidential letter that it had obtained evidence confirming that Syrian forces had indeed been hit by a projectile containing the chemical agent in the town of Khan al-Asal.
The Syrian army, Britain claims, fired a chemical shell at a public facility suspected of harboring opposition elements, but that it veered off target, striking a Syrian government installation. Britain also informed the U.N. it has obtained a soil sample identifying the agent as "similar to sarin," according to a senior Western diplomat familiar with the case. But it remained unclear where the sample was located. The London Times, reported earlier this week that British intelligence had obtained a soil sample "of some kind of chemical weapon" near Damascus, though it cited a source saying. "It can't be definitively be said to be sarin nerve agent."
On March 20, Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, invited the U.N. to send an "impartial" technical team to Syria confirm the opposition's use of chemical weapons in the town of Khan al-Asal near Aleppo. Russia strongly endorsed the Syrian request.
The U.N. chief quickly agreed to establish a fact-finding team and appointed a Swedish chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, to lead it. But the effort to deploy the team in Syria has bogged down over a big power dispute over the scope of the investigation.
Britain and France opposed the Syrian request for a narrow U.N. investigation into the single incident -- out of concern that the U.N. would be unable to prove who fired the chemical weapon, and that the physical evidence could be used to support the Syrian government's claim that it was a victim. Instead, they convinced Ban to expand the inquiry to include the examination of opposition claims that Syrian authorities used chemical weapons in Homs and Damascus. "There was a strong effort to foil the Syrian government narrative and urge the secretary general not to fall into that trap."
Ban agreed on March 21 to expand the investigation.
On Friday, Angela Kane, the U.N. undersecretary for disarmament affairs, informed Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, that the U.N. team would focus initially on the incident at Khan al-Asal, near Aleppo. But she added that Ban "has concluded the mission should also investigate the facts related to the reported incident on 23 December 2012 in Homs," according to an confidential communication.
The U.S. State Department carried out an internal investigation into the incident earlier this year, according to a report by Foreign Policy's blog, The Cable. Claims by opposition elements that Syria used chemical weapons in a March 19 attack in Ataybah town, near Damascus, are less persuasive than the other two cases.
Syria balked at the request to expand the investigation, and the two sides remained at an impasse. Despite repeated pleas from Ban, Damascus has not let the U.N. inspectors into the country.
Russia has vigorously backed the Syrian government's request, denouncing the European call for an expanded investigation as a ploy to delay the Aleppo inquiry.
On Monday, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, speaking during a closed door Security Council luncheon with the U.N. secretary general, scolded Ban for failing to accept the Syrian government's terms. "He gave him an earful," said one senior council diplomat who attended the luncheon.
The U.N. has written to Britain, France, and Syria, requesting further information and cooperation. Officials said the investigation team, currently in Cyprus, would likely travel to Britain to examine its soil sample, and interview Syrian refugees that may have been exposed to chemical agents.
In a press conference Wednesday, Ban told reporters that he would proceed with an investigation into the incidents outside the country. "I have been urging the Syrian government to show flexibility in accepting the proposed modalities," he said. "While awaiting consent from the Syrian government, the mission will proceed with its fact-finding activities. To this end, specific information has been requested from the governments concerned."
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The U.N. recently issued updated its guidelines for its senior officials on the etiquette of consorting with world leaders and lesser suspects that stand accused of committing massive war crimes.
Seems that would be a pretty obvious "no, no," but it's not as simple as it seems.
The latest regulations reaffirm existing U.N. guidelines restricting U.N. brass from most dealings with Sudan's leader, Omar al-Bashir, who stands accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of masterminding a campaign of genocide in Darfur several years ago.
But there are virtually no restrictions on dealings with Kenya's new leader, President Uhuru Kenyatta, who stands accused of orchestrating the killing, rape, and displacement of thousands of civilians from the cities of Nakura and Naivasha who were suspected of backing a rival political faction during the country's disputed election in 2008.
So, what's the difference between the court's treatment of Bashir and Kenyatta?
For starters, Kenyatta has recognized the court's legitimacy and appeared in The Hague to face the charges. Bashir hasn't.
The U.N. policy is crafted to reward suspects who cooperate with the Hague-based tribunal. Under the new guidelines, the ICC will issue a summons to a suspected war criminal who volunteers to face charges before the Hague court. But if a suspect makes it clear they won't appear, then the court will issue a formal arrest warrant, which places a legal obligation on governments that have ratified the treaty creating the war crimes court to surrender the individual.
The U.N., which signed a relationship agreement that requires it to refrain from undermining the ICC, reasons that contacts with cooperative suspects "do not undermine the authority of the court."
"U.N. officials may interact without restrictions with persons who are the subject of a summons to appear issued by the ICC and who are cooperating with the ICC," read the guidelines, which were presented to the U.N. Security Council earlier this month. A copy was obtained by Turtle Bay.
But the privilege can be taken away if Kenyatta halts his cooperation with the court. Kenyatta hinted at that possibility, declaring in his inauguration that Kenya intended to uphold its international obligations, but only if its relations with international institutions were based on "mutual respect" and affirmed Kenya's sovereignty. Since then, Kenyan officials have been pushing back. Last week, Kenya's deputy U.N. ambassador Koko Muli Grignon told the U.N. General Assembly that the ICC has no right to prosecute Kenyan nationals without the consent of the government, and that the case against Kenyatta and other Kenyan nationals should be transferred to a Kenyan court. The Hague-based tribunal, she added, "should be a "court of last resort."
Court observers find Kenyatta's remarks troubling.
"I think there is a concern that they may be backtracking," said Richard Dicker, an expert at Human Rights Watch, who noted that the ICC is only pursuing the case because "the Kenyan authorities have failed for several years to take action domestically."
For the time being, Dicker said, the ICC guidelines make sense for legal and policy purposes. First, he said, they affirm the "presumption of innocence" for the accused, including Kenyatta, who has not been convicted of a crime. The policy also serves as an incentive for suspects to cooperate with the court.
There are also practical considerations for making an exception for someone like Kenyatta. The U.N.'s African headquarters is stationed in Nairobi, providing support for peacekeeping, humanitarian, and anti-poverty missions throughout the continent. A breakdown in the relationship with the Kenyan leader could complicate the U.N.'s ability to do its work. In a sign of Kenya's importance, U.S. and European ambassadors attended Kenyatta's presidential inauguration. And Ban Ki-moon even sent a letter congratulating Kenyatta for his win.
The U.N.'s experience in Sudan, where the international body manages several major stability operations, has demonstrated how difficult it can be to shun a leader in a country's whose cooperation the U.N. depends on.
Ban's office chided the former chief of the African Union-U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Ibrahim Gambari, for attending a wedding where Bashir was also a guest [*See note below]. Last month, a U.N. Development Program official in Chad participated in a diplomatic welcoming committee that received Bashir at the airport, which prompted a call by Tiina Intelmann, the president of the ICC's Assembly of State's Parties, to senior U.N. officials to express concern about the incident. UNDP acknowledged that it had erred.
"The Officer-in-Charge of UNDP's country office in Chad...was requested by the Chad Government to form part of a receiving line for Heads of State arriving at the airport," said UNDP spokeswoman Christina LoNigro. "There he was introduced by President [Idriss] Deby to the Presidents of Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, and Benin. UNDP has taken this encounter, which runs counter to UN policy seriously, and has drawn the attention of all staff in the region to the policy."
Intellman welcomed the U.N. decision to release the guidelines, and said that member states of the ICC treaty body are trying to negotiate their own guidelines. She also voiced sympathy for the challenge posed by U.N. officials.
“The situations in which UN officials find themselves are quite complex,” she told Turtle Bay. She acknowledged that there are legitimate cases "where U.N. officials have to make essential contacts with indictees," highlighting U.N. efforts to promote peace deals.
So, what then is a U.N. official to do avoid an inappropriate encounter with an alleged mass murder? Here are some key pointers, from the new guidelines:
• It can be anticipated that persons who are the subject of arrest warrants issued by the ICC may deliberately seek to meet with UN officials in order to demonstrate their contempt for the ICC and try to undermine its authority.
• Contacts between U.N. officials and person who are the subject to warrants of arrest issued by the ICC should be limited to those which are strictly required for carrying out essential UN mandate activities.
• As a general rule, there should be no meetings between U.N. officials and person who are the subject of warrants of arrest issued by the ICC.
• There should be no ceremonial meetings with such persons and standard courtesy calls should not be paid. The same holds true of receptions, photo opportunities, attendance at national day celebrations and so on. If the person holds a position of authority in a state, every effort should be made to meet and liaise with individuals other than the person in order to conduct business.
• This being said, there may be a need, in exceptional circumstances, to interact directly with a person who is subject of an ICC arrest warrant. Where this is imperative for the performance of essential U.N. mandate activities, direct interaction with such a person may take place to the extent necessary only.
The current guidelines also include an explicit exemption for the U.N. secretary general -- who met with Bashir in Tehran in August -- and the deputy secretary general to meet with Bashir and other accused war criminals "from time to time" in order to discuss "fundamental issues affecting the ability of the United Nations and its various offices, programs and funds to carry out their mandates in the country concerned, including vital matters of security."
Court advocates like Dicker say the exemption can be justified if used sparingly. "Making clear that there are some exceptions is acceptable, but the devil will be in the details." He said any exception should adhere to "an appropriately narrow application or interpretation." For instance, U.N. officials must learn to turn down invitations to war criminals' nuptials. The trick, he said, is to insure this doesn't become "the exception that ate the rule."
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*Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ibrahim Gambari attended the wedding of President Bashir's daughter. It was the wedding of Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal. Bashir was in attendence.
This, I think, needs repeating.
When it comes to Syria, the United Nations is stuck.
You could almost be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the extraordinary number of meetings, investigations, and resolutions currently devoted to resolving a crisis that has left more than 70,000 dead and raised the specter of chemical warfare.
On March 21, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced plans to send a U.N. team to Syria to investigate claims of chemical weapons use. I haven't spoken to a single diplomat or U.N. official who believes the team will ever be let into the country.
In the U.N. General Assembly, Qatar is asking governments to support a resolution that would bolster the Syrian rebels' international legitimacy. A final-watered down version may ultimately be passed, but like previous UNGA resolutions on Syria, its impact will be largely symbolic -- another stern demonstration of Syria's diplomatic isolation.
Lakdhar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council on April 19, regarding his latest efforts to persuade the warring factions to agree to a political transition. Prospects for a peaceful transition have never looked bleaker.
There's a long history of diplomatic standstills generating a flurry of diplomatic action leading nowhere. In Darfur, Sudan, the U.N. Security Council once authorized a U.N. peacekeeping mission even though it was clear Khartoum would not let it into the country. In Bosnia, the council created U.N. safe havens that it couldn't be defend.
Syria is no different.
"The UN has been entirely cut out ... and I think there is no reason to believe any of these current activities is going to make the slightest difference on the ground," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. "What you see at the U.N. are diplomats creating noise to conceal the fact that they are not making progress."
It's unfair to write the U.N. off entirely.
The U.N. has been at the forefront of international efforts to raise concern about human rights abuses in Syria, while organizing the world's humanitarian response and collecting a catalogue of evidence of war crimes that could ultimately be used to hold some of Syria's worst human rights violators accountable for their crimes. And Ban has been outspoken in scolding the perpetrators of violence and pushing major powers to step up to the plate.
"On Syria, this is a most troubling situation where all the leaders of the world should really take a much more strengthened leadership role," Ban said after a meeting in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama. "I have asked President Obama to demonstrate and exercise his stronger leadership in working with key partners of the Security Council."
But the council -- the only U.N. institution that has real clout -- has been paralyzed by a big power dispute between China and Russia on one side, and the United States, Europe, and Arab governments on the other. The dispute poisons virtually every discussion.
The chemical weapons investigation is a case in point.
Last month, the Syrian government asked the U.N. secretary general to investigate its claim that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in a March 19 attack that killed 26 people, including 16 Syrian soldiers. Russia quickly rallied to Syria's defense, urging Ban to carry out the investigation as swiftly as possible.
But Britain and France, citing opposition claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, subsequently urged Ban to expand the investigation to include alleged incidents in Homs and Damascus. Ban agreed to look at all cases.
Syria, meanwhile, balked, insisting that U.N. could only investigate the single case in Aleppo. Russia has largely backed Syria's position, and made it clear that it would not allow the council to be used to pressure Syria to consent.
There has been no independent confirmation that chemical weapons were used, nor has there been confirmation that such munitions were used in some other recent cases, as alleged by the opposition. But Britain and France have presented the United Nations with information indicating numerous possible incidents of chemical weapons use.
Lacking Security Council support, Ban this week sought to coax Damascus into granting visas by announcing that the inspection team had already traveled to Cyprus, and was ready to go to Syria within 24 hours. "They are now ready to go," Ban reiterated following his meeting with Obama.
But U.N. officials and diplomats say privately that Syria, which has already refused Ban's terms for the probe, is unlikely to let the team in. "We're at an impasse," said one council diplomat.. "It doesn't look good."
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U.N. peacekeeping has its own caste system.
Rich countries pay most of the financial cost of keeping the peace. Poorer countries provide the peacekeepers. These days, they also die in far higher numbers than their wealthier counterparts.
No country has paid the price as often as India.
On Tuesday, India lost five of its U.N. blue helmets, who were ambushed by a force of 200 unidentified armed fighters in South Sudan. Five other Indian peacekeepers were badly injured. "We are in a process of assimilating the information about what happened," said Manjeev Singh Puri, the charge d'affaires at India's mission to the United Nations. "These soldiers have acquitted themselves with bravery,"
This is not the first time that India -- which has deployed more than 160,000 of its soldiers over the past 60 years in peacekeeping missions, more than any other nation -- has taken peacekeeping losses.
Since the dawn of U.N. peacekeeping, 154 Indian peacekeepers have died in the line of duty, more than any other country. Other developing nations, including Nigeria (135), Pakistan (132), Ghana (130), and Bangladesh (112), have posted large casualty figures.
Compare that with the U.N.'s top financial donors' death tally: the United States (70, although only a fraction have occurred in the past 15 years), France (108), Britain (103), Germany (15), South Korea (9), and Japan (5).
It was not always like this. In the first decade of U.N. peacekeeping, the majority of international casualties, some 41 out of 45 fatalities, were from Western armies. In the 1990s, the United States, France, Britain, and other Western powers formed the core of U.N. peacekeeping missions, sending tens of thousands of their troops to Cambodia, Somalia, and the Balkans. U.N. peacekeeping stalwarts that endured heavy fatalities in these causes and others include Canada (121), Ireland (90), and Sweden (67).
But many of those countries have since retreated from U.N. peacekeeping, preferring to serve in NATO-backed operations in Afghanistan, and leaving it to the developed world to stand sentry at the far reaches of the world.
Edward Luck, a historian and dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, said that Western governments have found it more difficult to maintain political support for U.N. peacekeeping after suffering serious losses.
In contrast, he noted, India, Pakistan, and other developed countries have been able to sustain far larger casualties in U.N. missions. Pakistan, for instance, lost 40 peacekeepers in the U.N. mission in Somalia in the early 1990s, but it had little impact on its willingness to sign up for more. For many developed countries, according to Luck, participation in peacekeeping has a financial motive. "The U.N. pay scale is higher than what they can pay their own forces," he said. "I don't think that's true for countries like India and Pakistan," he added, noting that their peacekeeping role elevates their standing on the international stage. India frequently cites its peacekeeping service in making a case for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
The United States, Luck recalled, largely ended its U.N. peacekeeping role in Somalia -- where it lost a total of 44 soldiers -- after the "Black Hawk Down" incident, an ill-fated military raid which resulted in the death of 18 U.S. Rangers and Delta Force operatives. Although the U.S. team was not serving under U.N. command at the time, the American public blamed the United Nations. In May 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a presidential directive that imposed strict conditions for U.S. involvement.
The Belgians and the Dutch suffered setbacks in Rwanda, where 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed by Hutu extremists during the 1994 genocide, and Bosnia, where a small contingent of Dutch blue helmets were powerless to halt the mass killing in Srebrenica. Both countries subsequently scaled back their participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Bruce Jones, the director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, says that the number of troops allocated to a given peacekeeping mission provides an incomplete measure of Western powers' commitment to run risk in foreign stabilization operations, noting that U.S. and European troops in Afghanistan have endured far higher casualty figures than their counterparts in U.N. peacekeeping.
France, too, has shown an increasing willingness to participate in peace operations in Africa, even if it continues to deploy its forces under French command. "My bet is as the battle-hardened West pivots out of Afghanistan we will see a greater willingness by Western governments to participate in a major way in blue-helmeted operations and to take risks," Jones said.
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The Obama administration, Canada, and possibly other governments will boycott a U.N. General Assembly session being convened tomorrow on international justice because of concern that the Serbian president of the U.N. body will use the event to bash the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, according to senior U.N. diplomats.
The U.S. snub comes one week after Jordan's U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, a former U.N. political officer in Bosnia in the 1990s, announced plans in this blog to boycott the event. It comes as Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic , is scheduled to arrive in New York city tomorrow to open the day-long thematic debate, entitled "The Role of International Justice in Reconciliation."
The United States declined to comment on its plans. But Zeid confirmed that the United States and Canada intend to forgo the event. "I am very pleased the United States, Canada, and possibly others are boycotting," the event, Zeid told Turtle Bay tonight.
Vuk Jeremic, a former Serbian foreign minister who is serving as president of the 193-member General Assembly, decided to organize the conference late last year, following the acquittal by an appeals chamber of the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac. The two men had been convicted lower court of carrying out mass atrocities against ethnic Serbs during Operation Storm in the Kraijina region of Croatia.
The timing of the U.N. event -- the meeting coincides with the 71st anniversary of the founding of the pro-Nazi Croatian state -- has fueled concerns among many delegates that the event will be used to bash the tribunal.
Jeremic, an outspoken critic of the ICTY, said that the debate would not be restricted to a debate on the Balkans, and that governments could debate any aspect of international justice they chose.
In an interview tonight, Jeremic said that the United States had not informed him of its plans for tomorrow's event. "If it is true it would be highly regrettable," he said. "Eighty countries have signed up to speak, either directly or as a group, and we expect many more to be present."
"I think this topic is worth debating," he said. "Therefore I find it highly regrettable if some countries chose to boycott."
The Yugoslav court, which has indicted more than 90 Serbian nationals, including former President Slobodan Milosevic, has been unpopular among many Serbs, who feel it has gone too soft on Croatian and Bosnian Muslim war criminals. Jeremic has been a staunch critic.
Last week, Zeid voiced concern that Jeremic would manipulate the debate to minimize the crimes of Serbs in the Balkans during the 1990s. "I was in the former Yugoslavia from 1994-1996 and, in view of what I know to be true, will also, together with my delegation, be nowhere near the event," Zeid told Turtle Bay last week. " We will encourage other delegations in the coming days to do likewise."
Zeid said that Jeremic had denied a request by the Mothers of Srebrenica, a Bosnian human rights group that represents victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, to address the U.N. General Assembly, though he did invite them to attend. Instead, the group will hold a press conference at U.N. headquarters sponsored by the governments of Jordan and Liechtenstein.
Tomorrow's session will include two parts, public debate by governments in the U.N. General Assembly, and a pair of afternoon panel discussions. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is planning to deliver a speech at the opening of the General Assembly Session. The European Union is also scheduled to deliver a speech. But many governments, including Britain, are expected to send relatively junior officials to the event.
In recent weeks, several prominent attendees -- including the president of the International Criminal Court, Song Sang-Hyun -- who had previously planned to attend the conference have pulled out of the event. Others include the president of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court, Tina Intelmann; the U.N. secretary general's special advisor on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng; the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth; and the U.N. secretary general's lawyer, Patricia O'Brien.
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For a start, several of my better informed Twitter followers. And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The U.N. leader today singled out Thatcher's early contribution to the debate on global warming, crediting the former prime minister as "one of the first world leaders to issue a warning about its effects by calling for action at the U.N. General Assembly already in 1989."
In that November 1989 address, Thatcher issued a call for binding agreements to regulate the production of heat-trapping gases that cause global warming.
"The threat to our world comes not only from tyrants and their tanks. It can be more insidious though less visible," Thatcher said two years later, at a meeting of the Second World Climate Conference at the Palais des Nations. "The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations."
Thatcher's concerns about the threat posed by climate change drew on her own background as a scientist. But in 1988, according to the BBC, she "shocked" the Royal Society with an unexpected and emotionally charged September speech, in which she appealed to the attendees to pay heed to the tell-tale signs of environmental doom.
"For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world's systems and atmosphere stable," she told the society. "But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself."
Roger Harrabin, the BBC's environmental analyst, wrote this morning that Thatcher "later recanted, voicing fears that climate had become a left-wing vehicle." Harrabin also recalled that two days before the U.N. speech, Britain had blocked a proposal at a climate conference in the Netherlands calling for a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2005. "But her earlier remarks had already changed the institutional landscape."
"Funny old world, innit?" the Independent's Michael McCarthy wrote this morning. "These days, if you're a right-wing Conservative, or a right-wing commentator or blogger, it is virtually a badge of honor to proclaim that all this global warming stuff, and action taken to counter it, is a load of cobblers."
I guess you could say equally that it has been something of a badge of honor for left-wing Liberals to denounce Thatcher's conservatism. But not, it seems, her views on the environment.
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(Thanks to @pandes4 @davidsteven @sunnysingh_nw3 @jossgarman @rowandavies for the helpful links on Thatcher's environmental record.)
The United Nations is ready to deploy a chemical weapons inspection team in Syria within 24 hours, but Syria has yet to give the green light to enter the country, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in The Hague, Netherlands, where he is attending a review conference on the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The diplomatic standoff comes weeks after the government in Damascus invited the United Nations to Syria to investigate its claim that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in an attack in the city of Aleppo. But the lack of progress suggests that Syria misjudged the U.N.'s willingness to carry out an investigation on Syria's terms.
So far, Syria has refused the U.N.'s request to expand the investigation to investigate the country's undeclared chemical weapons stockpile or to consider counterclaims by the Syrian opposition that it's Syrian forces that used chemical weapons against them. Britain and France have formally asked Ban to expand the mission to consider all claims, a move that was quickly denounced by Syria's principle big power ally, Russia, as a ploy to delay and derail the investigation sought by Damascus.
"Syria wants to limit the investigation to one site only," said a senior U.N. official. But the "secretary general feels he has a responsibility to make sure the team can investigate other claims."
Ban used his trip to The Hague to increase pressure on Syria to allow the inspectors in. Following a meeting with the Swedish head of the U.N. investigation team, Ake Sellstrom, Ban told reporters that the inspectors are ready to go.
"I can announce today that an advance team is now on the ground in Cyprus, the final staging point to undertake the mission in Syria," Ban said, adding that Sellstrom would be in Cyprus by tomorrow. "The United Nations investigation mission is now in a position to deploy in Syria in less than 24 hours. All technical and logistical arrangements are in place."
Ban said he is committed to investigating "all possible uses of chemical weapons in Syria. Now all we are waiting for is the go-ahead from the Syrian government for a thorough investigation to determine whether any chemical weapons were used in any location."
The decision to deploy inspectors comes just weeks after the U.N. withdrew most of its international staff from Damascus, citing the deteriorating security. Ban said that he is "assured" by Syrian commitments that "all security and safety will be guaranteed by the Syrian authorities." But he said the team would also rely on support from a U.N. security team.
The United Nations top disarmament official, Germany's Angela Kane, has been engaged in intensive negotiations with Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Al Jaafari, over the inspectors' mandate. Last week, Reuters reported that Jaafari informed Kane in a letter that the U.N. would require only limited access to the location in Aleppo where they claimed chemical weapons had been used. He also indicated that the government wanted a say in the selection of international inspectors, a request that the U.N. rejected.
In today's remarks, Ban urged "the Syrian government to be more flexible on this matter so that this mission can be deployed as soon as possible," he said. "The longer we take, the harder it will be to gather samples and evidence."
"My position, as I have said this morning, is clear, that all claims should be investigated, without exception, without any conditions," Ban added.
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Jordan will boycott a controversial U.N. session on international criminal justice and reconciliation, because of concerns that the Serbian president of the General Assembly will use the event to marshal unfair criticism of the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Jordan's ambassador to the U.N., Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, outlined his intention in a meeting with Arab ambassadors last week and will raise it on Friday with representatives of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. He also blocked a move by the Non-Aligned movement, a bloc of 120 developing countries, to issue a statement in support of the April 10 meeting.
The one-man protest is somewhat quixotic -- as few other countries have expressed an interest in following his example. But it provided a rare case of a senior U.N. diplomat -- one who served as a U.N. political officer in Bosnia when Bosnian Serb forces massacred thousands of Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica -- throwing a wrench into the diplomatic niceties at the U.N.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which has indicted more than 90 Serbian nationals, including former President Slobodan Milosevic, has been unpopular among many Serbs, who feel it has gone too soft on Croatian and Bosnian Muslim war criminals. Vuk Jeremic, the former Serbian foreign minister who is serving as president of the U.N. General Assembly, has been a sharp critic of the court. He scheduled the April 10 meeting after the court's appeal chamber acquitted two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladic Markac, convicted by a lower court of carrying out mass atrocities against ethnic Serbs during Operation Storm in the Kraijina region of Croatia.
The timing of the U.N. event -- the meeting coincides with the 71st anniversary of the founding of the pro-Nazi Croatian state -- has fueled concerns among many delegates that the event will be used to bash the tribunal, and that Jeremic is stacking the attendees of a pair of panels with critics of the court.
In a recent interview, Jeremic said that while he had selected the date to honor the victims of the Croatian fascists during World War II he saw the event as an opportunity to ponder the lessons learned from a broad range of international U.N. courts established since the end of the Cold War. He also said that his own efforts to include a balanced slate of speakers has been confounded by unnamed states who have pressured them not to participate.
In recent weeks, several prominent attendees -- including the president of the International Criminal Court, Song Sang-Hyun -- who had previously planned to attend the conference have pulled out of the event, Jeremic confirmed. Others include the president of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court, Tina Intelmann; the U.N. secretary general's special advisor on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng; the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth; and the U.N. secretary general's lawyer, Patricia O'Brien, according to Jeremic.
The Jordanian diplomat's action is motivated by his own personal experience in Bosnia in the 1990s, where he served as a U.N. peacekeeper. In 1998, Zeid helped spearhead a General Assembly resolution calling on the Secretary General Kofi Annan to conduct a review of the U.N.'s response to the massacre in Srebrenica.
Zeid has also been a chief proponent of international justice. He served from 2002 to 2005 as the first president of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court.
"The president of the General Assembly has done little to conceal his motives regarding the thematic debate on the 10th of April, which has prompted many of the more notable early participants to withdraw," Zeid told Turtle Bay. "They are not fooled. I was in the former Yugoslavia from 1994-1996 and, in view of what I know to be true, will also, together with my delegation, be nowhere near the event. We will encourage other delegations in the coming days to do likewise."
The United States and European governments have also raised concerns with Jeremic in private about the timing of the event and his handling of the conference, which will begin with a public meeting of the full General Assembly, including a speech by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, and then break off into two separate afternoon panel discussions. But they have stopped short of boycotting, and intend to send lower-ranking diplomats to the event to register their displeasure, according to diplomats. The U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment on the event. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's office said recently that Ban would attend the session, unless he was out of town.
Christian Wenewaser, Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador, who also served as the president of the ICC's Assembly of States Parties, shared many of Zeid's concern about Jeremic's handling of the event. He said that while he welcomed a debate on international criminal justice, Jeremic had focused the too narrowly on the Yugoslav tribunal and that he has ignored expressions of concern from other member states. But he is not prepared to join Zeid's boycott. "Unfortunately, this is a lost opportunity that could have been a good thing, which is now not going to be a good thing," he said.
"We haven't decided that boycotting the event is the most effective way of dealing with this," he added. "There is also an argument in favor of saying the right thing and if no one is there will be no one to say the right thing."
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Iran, North Korea, Syria, and the National Rifle Association are grabbing all the headlines for opposing an Arms Trade Treaty that is designed to prohibit the delivery of weapons to countries accused of committing gross human rights violations or subject to an international arms embargo.
But they are not the only ones with misgivings about a new global arms trade treaty. In all, 23 governments cast abstentions, a gesture designed to show discomfort, if not open hostility, to the new arms accord. It would have been 24, but Venezuela, which has not paid its U.N. arrears, is barred from voting in the U.N. General Assembly.
China and Russia, two of the world largest arms exporters, abstained. Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, registered his disapproval by noting that while the draft had some "positive elements" it also suffered from " a number of other shortcomings." Chief among them: the lack of an explicit prohibition on the supply of weapons to non-state actors that would, for example, restrain the ability of Syria's armed opposition from building up its stockpile.
Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the opposition to the treaty, not only by Syria, Iran, and North Korea, but also by Russia, was politically motivated. "It's no surprise these countries are not supporting the treaty. There is no surprise that Russia expressed qualms about this. Bashar al-Assad's regime is depending on Russian and Iranian military aid and that assistance would be prohibited if this treaty were in force today."
But those arming the Syrian opposition were no happier with the arms treaty than Russia.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Persian Gulf powers reported to be arming the Syrian opposition, were among the 23 U.N. members who cast abstentions on the vote for the landmark treaty in the U.N. General Assembly. Others included their Persian Gulf allies, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Yemen. The United Arab Emirates was alone in the region voting in favor of the new arms pact.
India, a major arms importer, had complained before today's vote that the draft treaty was "tilted" in favor of the world's leading arms exporters. That was after New Delhi extracted a concession that explicitly guaranteed that the treaty would have no impact on defense cooperation agreements between governments. But during today's General Assembly meeting, India's chief negotiator, Sujata Mehta, said the text "falls short of our expectations." Among its shortcoming, he said, it "is weak on terrorism and non-state actors."
While support for the treaty was widespread in Latin America and Africa, there were notable pockets of resistance. Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua -- countries that frequently vote against the United States and its allies -- cast abstentions. A Bolivian diplomat denounced the treaty as the product of a "death industry" that cares more about "profit" than "human suffering.
In Africa, where support for the treaty was strongest, a handful of countries -- Angola, Egypt, Sudan, and Swaziland -- cast abstentions. There were reports, however, that Angola supported the treaty but accidentally hit the "abstain" button during the vote.
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The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly this morning to create the first international treaty regulating the global arms trade, a landmark decision that imposes new constraints on the sale of conventional arms to governments and armed groups that commit war crimes, genocide, and other mass atrocities.
The U.N. vote was hailed by arms control advocates and scores of governments, including the United States, as a major step in the international effort to enforce basic controls on the $70 billion international arms trade. But it was denounced by Iran, North Korea, and Syria, for imposing new restrictions that prevent smaller states from buying and selling arms to ensure their self-defense.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the General Assembly for approving "a strong, effective and implementable arms trade treaty that can strengthen global security while protecting the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade."
Kerry said that the treaty "applies only to international trade and reaffirms the sovereign right of any state to regulate arms within its territory. As the U.S. has required from the outset of these negotiations, nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment."
Kerry said the treaty would establish "a common national standard" -- similar to that already in place in the United States -- for regulating global trade in conventional arms. It would also reduce the risk that arms sales would be used to "carry out the world's worst crimes, including terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes."
The 193 member assembly voted 154 to 3 to adopt the treaty. There were 23 abstentions, including major arms traders like China, India, and Russia, as well as countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, that have been supplying weapons to armed opposition groups in Syria, The treaty, which will open for signatures on June 3, will go into force 90 days after it is ratified by 50 states.
The vote came four days after Iran, North Korea, and Syria -- three governments who would likely be targeted by the new measures -- blocked the adoption of the treaty by consensus, arguing that it failed to bar sales to armed groups or foreign occupiers, and that it would strengthen the ability of big powers to restrict small states' ability to buy weapons.
But the vote revealed broader misgivings about the treaty by dozens of countries -- including Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan -- that the treaty would grant an unfair advantage to the world's largest arms exporters. India's chief negotiator, Sujata Mehta, explained her government's decision to abstain, saying today that the treaty "is weak on terrorism and non-state actors." She previously objected that the "weight of obligations is tilted against importing states."
The United States, which co-sponsored the treaty, said that several U.S. agencies will conduct a review of the treaty before it is presented to President Barack Obama for signature. The treaty would also require ratification by the United States Senate.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) -- which has contended the treaty would weaken Second Amendment gun rights in the United States -- has pledged to fight the treaty's ratification in the Senate.
But U.S. officials and several non-governmental organizations, including the American Bar Association, an attorneys' lobbying group, have challenged the NRA's position, saying the treaty would have no impact on Americans' gun rights. The treaty language recognizes the "legitimate trade and lawful ownership, and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical and sporting activities."
Iran, meanwhile, protested last week that the treaty had provided specific protections for U.S. gun owners, while failing to provide protections for people living under foreign occupation.
Under the treaty, states are banned from transferring arms to countries, including Iran and North Korea, that are subject to U.N. arms embargoes, or to countries believed to be preparing to use them to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.
The treaty would require governments to establish a national record-keeping system that would allow them to track the trade in conventional arms, and to ensure that weapons are not illegally diverted to terrorist organizations or other armed groups. It would also require that governments conduct a risk assessment to determine the likelihood that arms exports are being used to violate or abuse human rights, particularly against women or children.
The arms treaty would apply to several categories of conventional arms, including battle tanks, combat aircraft, warships, attack helicopters, missiles, and small arms. The treaty includes exemptions that would allow the consideration of defense cooperation agreements between governments and allow states to transfer weapons across international borders, so long as the weapons remain under that state's control.
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When I started this blog about three years ago I was hoping to contribute some insights into the inner workings of the United Nations, and maybe have a few laughs. I never thought I would help inspire a cocktail.
Allow me to introduce The Diplomatic Hangover:
1 ½ oz Russian vodka
1 ¼ oz lemon grapefruit cordial
To make the cordial: 2 cups grapefruit juice; 2 cups lemon juice; 3 cups sugar in a container with zest from the lemons and grapefruits, rested for two days in a fridge. Will last about 1 week refrigerated.
(See full recipe, including French rosé and Kenya's Tusker Beer topping, here.)
Earlier this month, I wrote a story describing how the U.S. Ambassador for United Nations Management and Reform Joseph Torsella had scolded his diplomatic counterparts for excessive drinking during marathon budget negotiations in December.
The reaction -- which I detailed in a follow-up piece entitled "America's Diplomatic Hangover" -- was fierce.
The U.N.'s African diplomats -- who suspected Torsella was talking about them -- refused to participate in budget negotiations after normal working hours. (Though they have apparently relented, agreeing to hold weekend meetings).
Dominic Girard, a radio journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, called me to say he was producing a pilot radio program, Sociable, which explores "how alcohol shapes society for bad, for good, for fun and for nought." He wanted to do a spot on the drinking habits of U.N. diplomats, so Girard invited Sociable's bartender in residence, Oliver Stern, to develop a drink to go with the program. (Yes, apparently such a job does exist, though I suspect he is unpaid. He is a managing partner at the Toronto Temperance Society, where he also tends bar.)
"I thought of diplomats coming from all corners of the world sharing their traditional celebratory drinks: vodka, wine and beer," Stern writes of his new drink. "When I mix hard spirits with beer and wine I normally end up having a hangover, hence the name and the cocktail."
Now that we have established the backstory, I think we need to look ahead.
Later this year, the U.N. will be reopening its famed delegate's lounge, and bar, following a major renovation by a Dutch design team, including the architect Rem Koolhaas* and designer Hella Jongerius. It would only be fitting if Mr. Stern's concoction could find its way onto the drink menu.
For those who wanted to keep a clear head, he has come up with an alcohol free alternative: "The Diplomatic Immunity."
So, Amb. Torsella, what will it be?
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(an earlier version misspelled Koolhaas. Turtle Bay regrets the error)
Vuk Jeremic, the hyper-kinetic Serbian president of the U.N. General Assembly, is on a mission to restore Serbia's prestige on the world stage.
The former Serbian foreign minister has used his position at the head of the world's parliament to recast Serbia -- tarnished by its role in mass killings during the 1990s Balkan Wars, including the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims males in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces -- as a victim of history.
In a series of speeches and events, Jeremic has highlighted the plight of Serbs in World War I and World War II, denouncing more recent abuses of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo while glossing over Serbian aggression in places like Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s.
"Like many other nations, mine has travelled through periods of tragedy and periods of glory sacrificing men and treasure far beyond its means whenever its freedom was in need of defense," Jeremic told a gathering of small states in October, 2012, shortly after starting his one-year term. "One quarter of our population perished in the First World War, at enormous cost to our development. In the Second World War, close to a million Serbs fell to defeat the scourge of fascism."
But as Jemeric prepares to convene a high-profile conference next month on international justice -- an event that critics suspect he will use to denounce a U.N. court that indicted more than 90 Serbs, including the former Serb President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 in a jail cell in the Hague -- he is facing a backlash from governments and international jurists who feel he has abused his position to advance his narrow national interests.
In recent days, several international legal experts -- including Song Sang-Hyun, the president of the International Criminal Court -- who had confirmed their attendance at the conference have pulled out of the event. Many governments, including the United States and members of the European Union, are now considering sending low-level diplomats to the conference in order to register their displeasure with Jeremic's words.
International anxiety over the event stems from Jeremic's response to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugsolavia's November acquittal of two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladic Markac, who had been convicted by a lower court of carrying out mass killings against Croatian Serbs during Operation Storm, a Croatian campaign of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Serbs in the Kraijina, Croatia.
The controversial decision drew criticism from court experts who felt the appeals court had erred. But Jeremic has decided to go a step further, convening a major U.N. conference on international justice and reconciliation on April 10 that, he suggested in a series of tweets, would serve as a venue for denouncing the Croatian acquittal.
"The Hague appeals chamber has sent a signal that the ethnic cleansing has value, and is not a crime," Jeremic wrote in a November 25 tweet on his personal account, which he writes in Serbian. "These are the days of evil," he added four days later. "We must not be despondent. Wait for April, 10, 2013, the day of truth."
The timing of the event coincides with the 72nd anniversary of the April 10, 1941, founding of Croatia's pro-Nazi fascist state, a scheduling decision that has fueled suspicions among U.N. diplomats that Jeremic intends to turn the world's parliament into a forum for denouncing the failings of the court.
It has also raised concerns among U.N. delegates that he intends to convert the United Nations into a venue for nursing Serbia's past grievances and for pave the ground for a return to Serbian politics when he returns home. "The common assessment is that Jeremic, once again, [is trying] to abuse the U.N. for his domestic political purposes," said one European diplomat. " He is not serious about a profound and balanced debate about international justice and reconciliation. Given this highly polarizing setting...one can only hope that the secretary general will be very, very careful in pondering his participation."
Jeremic served as foreign minister under the former Serbian President Boris Tadic, a pro-Western politician, who vigorously opposed Kosovo's independence but who had publically apologized to the Bosnians and Croatians for crimes committed during the 1990s. Jeremic's election to the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly was a sign of Serbia's diplomatic normalization with the world body.
But in recent weeks, Jeremic -- who still retains a seat in the Serbian senate -- has sounded like a man preparing for a return to national politics. "When I complete my mandate as president of the U.N. General Assembly, I intend to go back to Belgrade, because I believe we can make Serbia into a country where citizens can achieve their full potential," he told members of the Serb-American community in a March 16 speech before a fundraising dinner in Chicago for ethnic Serb orphans in Kosovo. "I am asking you to join us in crafting a new vision for Serbia."
In the meantime, Jeremic is facing the greatest challenge to his stewardship of the General Assembly. In an interview with Turtle Bay, Jeremic said that the conference he scheduled to learn lessons from the U.N.'s 20-year long experiment in international criminal courts has come under attack by unnamed influential states, who have pressured key attendees, including the ICC president, to pull out of the event.
Among those who has have cancelled or declined invitations include the president of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court, Tina Intelmann; the U.N. secretary general's special advisor on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng; the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth; and the U.N. secretary general lawyer Patricia O'Brien.
"She can't make it; she's enormously busy," Jeremic said of O'Brien. "We note that very soon as a person confirms their attendance and we make it public it takes not more than a few days that he writes back saying regrettably we can't make it."
"There are some people who feel very uncomfortable about the date," he added. The date, he explained, "symbolizes in many ways evil and an undelivered justice from the Second World War. Imagine if someone said we feel uncomfortable on Holocaust Memorial day because people feel uncomfortable."
The event will begin with a public session in which all 193 members of the United Nations will be given an opportunity to speak. In the afternoon, Jeremic has scheduled two panel sessions to provide more focused panel discussion. Delegates say the list is unbalanced, providing critics of the tribunal with greater scope to denounce it.
Jeremic countered that he has offered several of the courts' supporters a seat at the table. But they have sought to distance themselves.
Their suspicions stem from an earlier episode.
In January, Jeremic organized a concert by a Serb youth choir in the General Assembly, which was attended by the U.N. secretary general. As an encore, the group performed a rendition of a World War I martial song, "The March on the River Drina," which Bosnian victims groups claimed had been used by Serb forces during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon -- unaware of the song's history -- clapped and swayed along with the beat, prompting complaints from Bosnian groups. "The genocide that occurred in Srebrenica and Zepa, and other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was conducted by Serbian aggressors while blasting this song as they raped, murdered, and ethnically cleansed the non-Serb population," read a statement by an American Bosniak organization.
The episode proved embarrassing to Ban, whose spokesman subsequently issued a statement expressing regret for any offense, and noting that he had not been aware of the history of the song -- which was not listed in the official program. But Ban's deputy spokesman, Eduardo Del Buey, said Ban had no intention to boycott the event. "If the SG is in New York, he will attend." Asked if Ban intended to be in town, del Buey recommended that this reporter ask Jeremic's office.
Jeremic defended the performance, saying nobody complained about it until "some diaspora organization here in America launched this controversy. Basically the song, which is almost sacred in our culture, is about sacrifice in the First World War. The question at stake is whether -- after everything that has taken place in the 1990s in the Balkans -- we as Serbs have the right to be proud of our First and Second World War history. If the answer to this is yes, then the song is ok."
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Speaking to reporters at U.N. headquarters, Ban said that his top advisors are still trying to determine the scope of the mission, the composition of the team, and the steps required to guarantee their safety.
The announcement comes one day after Syria's foreign minister, Walid Moallem, asked the U.N. to undertake an "impartial, independent" investigation into its claim that on March 19 "terrorists used chemical weapons in their attack in Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province." France and Britain, citing opposition claims that the Syrian government used chemical agents in an attack in Damascus, said they would urge Ban to expand the mission beyond the Aleppo case.
Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, denounced the European initiative, which is backed by the United States and many other council members, as a delaying tactic and insisted that Ban limit its immediate investigation into the single case in Aleppo. "There is just one allegation of the use of chemical weapons," he said. "This is really a way to delay the need for immediate urgent investigation of allegations pertaining to March 19 by raising all sorts of issues."
Churkin made it clear that the 15-nation Security Council would not be in a position to agree on a plan for a wider probe into possible use of chemical weapons in Syria.
But Ban said that he has authority to act on his own. The secretary general hinted that his mandate would go beyond the specific Syrian request, saying that he hoped the mission "would contribute to ensuring the safety and security of chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria. The investigation mission is to look into the specific incident brought to my attention by the Syrian government. I am, of course, aware that there are other allegations of similar cases involving the reported use of chemical weapons."
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The influential International Peace Institute (IPI) has caught the attention of the non-profit news organization, ProPublica, which earlier this week published a report on the think tank's decision to open up an office in the capital Manama, at the expense of the Bahraini government. The think tank, the headquarters of which are housed in a 1st Ave. building, across the street from U.N. headquarters in New York, has long been linked to the United Nations. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon serves as an honorary chair of the organization.
At its heart, the ProPublica piece raises two key questions: Is it right for a think tank to lend its name to a country that is politically repressive and bars foreign human rights advocates and journalists from bearing witness? Is it a potential conflict of interest to have a senior U.N. official solicit money from a government whose fate he or she may be influencing at the United Nations?
The official in question is IPI's chief officer, Terje Roed Larsen, a former Norwegian diplomat who negotiated the Oslo Accords, serves as a $1 a-year advisor to Ban, and accompanies the secretary general on his most important Middle East travels, including recent trips to Tehran and Gaza.
The Security Council has also enlisted Larsen's services (according him the rank of undersecretary general) in implementing the 2004 Resolution 1559, which required Syrian forces withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of all armed groups in that country, including Hezbollah. In that job, Larsen produces biannual reports detailing violations by Syria and Hezbollah of the resolution.
But Larsen also has another day job which pays the bills. In 2005, Larsen was appointed executive director of IPI, which now pays him a $495,000 salary. That role placed Larsen in the position of simultaneously serving the United Nations in its impartial mission -- while soliciting funds for his non-profit from many governments, including the United States, Norway, and the European Union, that pursue their own more narrow national interests at the United Nations.
Under Larsen's leadership, the organization has done well, tapping into a stream of new funding from oil-rich Gulf states, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two bitter rivals of Syria with ambitions for a larger political role in the Middle East and at the United Nations in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Prince Turki Al-Faisal -- a former Saudi intelligence chief and one-time Saudi ambassador to the United States -- is the chair of the IPI's international advisory council, whose members include a host of royals, including Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, as well as senior officials from Russia, the European Union, and other Western capitals.
By most accounts, IPI has become the go-to non-profit for the U.N. international diplomatic community, offering a regular menu of public events featuring top U.N. officials, foreign dignitaries, academics, and journalists. (Full disclosure: I once participated as an unpaid panelist in a discussion on reporting of U.N. peacekeeping.)
But its outreach to governments has also grown more ambitious, and it has played a kind of fixer role for some of its wealthier donors.
For instance, Larsen helped arrange for a Saudi Arabian initiative to underwrite a U.N. counterterrorism center. IPI also helped the government of Qatar develop a plan for the establishment of a program -- called HOPEFOR -- "to improve the use of military assets in disaster relief" and "help build a "global network of civilian and military practitioners."
In Bahrain, Larsen's dual-role as U.N. official and non-profit impresario has contributed to some confusion.
While the U.N. has played a rather timid role in pressing Bahrain to respect free expression, Ban has issued statements scolding the monarchy for cracking down violently on dissent and urging the government to lift protest restrictions. ProPublica cited a Bahrain press account from 2011 indicating that Larsen had extolled the climate of "freedom, democracy and institutional development."
In a telephone interview with Turtle Bay from Jakarta, Indonesia, Larsen said that his views had been mischaracterized by the Bahraini press and that he intentionally avoided interviews with reporters on his trips there. He said the articles do not cite actual quotes of his remarks.
Larsen said that Bahrain will serve as the institution's regional hub, and that its main initial focus will be the humanitarian crisis in Syria. His initial intention, he said, was to base the office in Damascus but that conditions were too violent to allow it. "We are an institute which is studying regional conflicts and we are in countries where there are conflicts," he said. "We don't go to Switzerland or Sweden because there are no violent conflicts."
Larsen dismissed the possibility that his dual roles might pose a conflict of interest, noting that his work for the U.N. Security Council was focused on "narrow events in Lebanon," and that he plays no mediation role for the U.N. secretary general that could potentially give rise to a conflict.
"This is not an issue," he said. "It has nothing to do with Bahrain. IPI is focusing on the humanitarian situation in Syria, the displaced and the refugees in neighboring countries."
Larsen's likened his venture into Bahrain as part of wider migration by Western think tanks and universities into the Persian Gulf. Blue-chip outfits like the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, have set up satellite operations in nearby Qatar.
The intellectual capital of the Middle East, it seems, is being erected with funding from oil rich sheikdoms in the heart of the Persian Gulf. Bahrain now will become a member of that club, while burnishing its reputation as host to international humanitarians.
That, according to human rights advocates, should give outside institutions like IPI grounds for pause. "Bahraini authorities can't cover up their terrible human rights record by paying for brand name institutions to set up shop there," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch . "Any independent think tank choosing Bahrain as a home should be aware that free exchange of ideas is almost impossible when many journalists or human rights advocates are barred from even entering the country."
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A U.N. disputes tribunal has awarded $65,000 in compensation to an American whistleblower in a landmark case that exposed failings in the U.N.'s Ethics Office and challenged the privileges of the U.N. secretary general to withhold sensitive internal documents from the U.N. administrative court.
The award was a fraction of the more than $3.8 million sought by James Wasserstrom, who was forced from his U.N. job in Kosovo after cooperating in an internal investigation of corruption by U.N. officials. He was subsequently stripped of his U.N. passport and treated like a criminal by his U.N. bosses.
Wasserstrom dismissed the award as paltry -- enough to purchase "half a dozen first class plane tickets for the secretary general and his senior staff" -- but too little to compensate for the "five years of legal battles and expenses" and the "degrading treatment" he endured.
"I put them, the U.N. Ethics Office, the whistleblower protection machinery, and the internal justice system of the U.N. to the integrity test and they all failed," he told Turtle Bay. The "message to U.N. staff who might one day want to come forward and do the right thing: do so at your own risk. You have absolutely no protection. And those who retaliate against you suffer no consequences."
The U.N. did not respond to a request for comment this afternoon. (*See note below for U.N. response)
In February 2007, the American diplomat began cooperating with a U.N. inquiry into reports of kickbacks given to U.N. officials responsible for Kosovo's energy sector. Two months later, Wasserstrom was informed that the United Nations was shutting down his department, the Office for Coordination of Oversight of Publicly Owned Enterprises, and that his contract would expire by June 30. In May, Wasserstrom signed a consultancy contract to advise executives of Kosovo's main airport, triggering a conflict-of-interest investigation.
On June 1, 2007, Wasserstrom was detained by U.N. police. His home was searched: his office was cordoned off with police tape. A poster with his picture instructed officials not to permit him onto U.N. premises, effectively ending a 27 year career at the United Nations. The episode, he said, made it impossible for him to secure a new job within the U.N. system, killing off his prospects to gain full retirement benefits two years before he was scheduled to retire.
Wasserstrom -- who now works as a senior anti-corruption advisor at the U.S. embassy in Kabul -- filed a retaliation complaint in June 2007, with the U.N. Ethics Office. The office subsequently ruled that his treatment "appeared to be excessive" but that an investigation "did not find any evidence that their activities were retaliatory."
The case cast a troubling light on the U.N.'s internal safeguards for protecting whistleblowers. The presiding judge, Goolam Meeran, wrote in his ruling that the U.N. Ethics Office, which bears responsibility for determining whether whistleblower retaliation has occurred, had failed to recognize "the significance of documentary evidence" showing he had suffered retaliation.
"There was clear and uncontested evidence, supported by the findings ... that the applicant's contractual rights were breached, which included clear evidence of severe human rights abuses," the judge wrote.
The breaches, however, were never addressed by the ethics committee, nor were the reasons for subjecting him to "such insensitive and degrading treatment," Meeran wrote. "In the absence of a cogent and satisfactory explanation, the inescapable inference must be that the underlying motive was retaliatory."
"The tribunal finds it difficult to envisage a worse case of insensitive, high handed and arbitrary treatment in breach of fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Meeran added. "The failure of the ethics office to recognize such gross violations calls seriously into question its suitability and effectiveness as a body charged with" helping the U.N. secretary general ensure the "highest standards of integrity" among staff and fostering "a culture of ethics, transparency and accountability."
The judge also battered the U.N.'s lawyers for having delayed the disclosure of key documents, including a critical internal investigative report on the case. "The tribunal has unquestionable power to 'require any person to disclose any document or provide any information that appears to it to be necessary for a fair and expeditious disposal of the proceedings'," Meeran wrote. "The tribunal finds that the [UN's] conduct of the proceedings in deliberately and persistently refusing, without good cause, to abide by the Orders of the Tribunal and not granting access to the full ID/OIOS's investigation report constituted manifest abuse of proceedings.
Meeran awarded Wasserstrom $50,000 in compensation for the mistreatment he endured in Kosovo and $15,000 in legal fees. But the judge did not compensate him for the loss of his job in Kosovo, citing insufficient evidence that his firing was the result of retaliation.
The low award reflected the fact that judges on the U.N. disputes tribunal have "no power to award exemplary or punitive damages" against the organization. But Judge Meeran also denied Wasserstrom's prospect of a larger award on the basis of a technicality.
Wasserstrom had argued that he was entitled to future compensation, including salary and benefits, because he would have expected to return to a job with his longstanding employer, the U.N. Development Program, after he concluded his stint in Kosovo. But he said the stain of the episode had made him unemployable.
The judge, however, ruled that irrespective of the merits of such a claim the U.N. Development Program was not a party to the dispute, and that Wasserstrom had no basis for raising a claim so late in the proceedings. "It is now too late to raise this matter," Meeran wrote. "Consequently, the tribunal dismisses all [Wasserstrom's] claims regarding compensation for lost earnings and associated benefits."
*The U.N. issued this response after the story was posted. Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general: "Judgements of the U.N. Dispute Tribunal are not final until they have been confirmed by the U.N. Appeals Tribunal. The organization is examining this judgment to determine whether an appeal is warranted. Consistent with established policy regarding ongoing cases, which includes cases under appeal and cases that may be appealed, the organization is not in a position to provide any further comments at this time."
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Last week, Joseph Torsella, the U.S. ambassador for U.N. Management and Reform, took a stand for sobriety at Turtle Bay, publically scolding unnamed diplomatic colleagues for negotiating U.N. budgetary matters under the influence of alcohol.
This week, he's confronting the diplomatic hangover.
Insulted by the slight -- and sensing it was directed at African delegates -- the U.N.'s African countries coalesced behind a plan to limit budget negotiations to the U.N.'s working hours, refusing to entertain marathon negotiations late into the night and weekends to close contentious deals. On Thursday, Russia -- which traditionally cracks open a celebratory bottle of vodka at the close of budget negotiations -- lent its support to the Africans.
At this stage of the negotiations, the African move is likely to have limited effect on the talks -- though it will likely reinforce the bloc's public image as obstructionist on matters of budgetary reform. But the strategy is likely to slow the pace of budget talks in its final stages, meaning that less important business may get done before the session adjourns on the eve of Good Friday.
The tensions over spending are symptomatic of a deeper divide between the U.N.'s richest and poorest countries. Developing countries resent the fact that the United States and other major powers dominate the U.N. Security Council and exercise outsize influence over the U.N. Secretary General and the bureaucracy. For them, the U.N. Fifth Committee -- which controls the budget -- provides their most important source of power and influence and they often suspect Western-backed reforms initiatives are aimed at undercutting that influence.
The United States has been struggling to push through a range of reforms aimed at controlling U.N. spending and opening the body's books to greater scrutiny. But they have confronted a wall of diplomatic resistance, played out in frequent procedural maneuvers aimed at delaying and deferring key business. During crucial December budget negotiations, America's negotiating partners, primarily from the developing world, failed to show up to meetings to discuss key U.S. priorities -- including an initiative to impose a pay freeze on U.N. staffers -- and in some cases arrived a bit tipsy, according to U.N. diplomats.
In response, Torsella delivered a March 4 statement to the U.N. Fifth Committee expressing concern about the conduct of diplomats during the final stage of the marathon December budget talks.
"Mr. Chairman, we make the modest proposal that the negotiating rooms should in the future be an inebriation-free zone," he told delegates at the meeting. "Let's save the champagne for toasting the successful end of the session, and do some credit to the Fifth Committee's reputation in the process."
The intent of the speech seemed to be to shock, or at least embarrass, the U.N. delegates into taking ongoing budget talks more seriously and to wrap up the current round of business -- which includes 16 items dealing with everything from air travel costs to the publication of internal U.N. audits -- before the Easter holiday. Torsella said the United States would "take all appropriate steps to achieve this, including working outside of normal working hours and making the necessary arrangements to facilitate parallel meetings as required."
Some diplomats now fear the appeal may have backfired.
Torsella's statement has infuriated U.N. delegates, not only among developing countries, but among some of Washington's wealthy allies, who are eager to rein in spending. "The whole negotiating atmosphere was really poisoned by this," said one Western diplomat. "People are very angry. They won't openly confront Torsella, but they will react."
The danger, said one diplomat, is that offended delegations will seek to "gum up" the negotiating proceedings and undermine Torsella's efforts to secure a handful of deals aimed at cutting travel spending, reining in peacekeeping costs, and instructing the U.N. procurement office to deliver more cost-effective services.
The United States sought to assure the membership that it appreciated the hard work of the majority of budget negotiators, but that it saw a need for improvement.
"We respect the work of the Secretariat and the majority of Fifth Committee delegates who are, across all regional groups, hard-working and serious," said Kurtis Cooper, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "At the same time, we welcome all efforts to improve the working practices and professionalism of the Fifth Committee, which was the intent and focus of our statement."
Few diplomats deny their colleagues have had a few shots of whisky and vodka during the U.N.'s marathon budget sessions. And Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin, made it clear he was not amused. "There should be no drinking during business sessions. And I'm going to give very clear instructions to that effect to my delegations."
But they say Torsella's statement and subsequent press leaks exaggerated the excesses, unfairly tarnishing the reputation of the entire U.N. diplomatic community and prompting Foreign Ministries to ask their missions: "What the hell is going on there?"
Torsella, they complained, never approached governments privately to raise concerns about diplomatic misconduct, raising suspicions that the former Philadelphia politician was seeking to raise his own profile.
In the process, said one senior diplomat, Torsella had contributed to creating a perception that was out of touch with reality: grueling weeks of arduous negotiations culminated in a 30-hour diplomatic marathon on Christmas Eve last year. With U.N. shops closed, delegates ordered in pizza, cakes, and whisky. "I have not seen one negotiator that was drunk. I haven't seen a bottle of alcohol on the negotiation table," the diplomat said. "I know my American colleagues are frustrated about the way it works, and the lack of results. But in my view, alcohol is not the problem."
In an effort to calm diplomats, Fifth Committee Chairman Miguel Berger of Germany, sought to assure delegates that he appreciated their hard work and professionalism. "We have seen a broad public coverage on how budget negotiations are supposedly conducted in the Fifth Committee," he said. "As chair I would like to state that the public perception created does in my view not reflect the professional and dedicated work that is done by this committee."
"Many colleagues are sacrificing their family life," he added. "It is for this reason that I want to take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation to you, the delegates of the Fifth Committee, for the work you have done and the long hours invested in the negotiations, and for the results achieved."
In the meantime, delegates, have been sharing a recent New York Times letter to the editor which cited a 2007 review of a book by Barbara Holland called the Joy of Drinking that extolled the role of drinking in American political life. Two days before the U.S. Constitution was written, the 55 delegates to the U.S. Constitutional Convention "adjourned to a tavern for some rest, and according to the bill they drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, 8 of whisky, 22 of port, 8 of hard cider and 7 bowls of punch so large, it was said, ducks could swim around in them. Then they went back to work and finished founding the new Republic."
The tavern, one diplomat gleefully recalled, was located in Philadelphia, Torsella's home town.
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It's not exactly the Cold War.
But U.S.-Russia relations have been getting pretty chilly in the U.N. Security Council lately.
On Tuesday, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, traded verbal blows over a stalled U.S. initiative to endorse a recent peace deal between Sudan and South Sudan.
The big power quarrel played out in a procedural skirmish over how the 15-nation council should be used to promote political reconciliation between the two Sudans, which have been locked in their own highly contentious squabbles over the nature of their relationship in the wake of South Sudan's independence in 2011.
Rice accused Churkin of trying to thwart the council's efforts to adopt a U.S.-drafted statement pressuring both Sudans to implement of set of obligations they have undertaken on everything from security arrangements to oil exports and trade, and condemning clashes between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces, including Khartoum’s aerial bombardment of towns in the south. Churkin fired back that Rice was "not reasonable" and her decision to divulge the contents of confidential negotiations was "rather bizarre."
The dispute reflected the deepening strains between the United States and Russia on a range of issues, including Syria, where the two powers have been stalemated, and Sudan, where Moscow has repeatedly stymied American efforts to press Khartoum. But it also highlighted the testy tenor of relations between Churkin and Rice, which some colleagues have likened to emotional exchanges between high-school kids.
For weeks, Rice had been struggling to secure agreement on a U.N. Security Council presidential statement that would recognize recent progress between the former civil war rivals in negotiations touching on everything from the demarcation of the border to control of Sudanese oil, which is mostly pumped in landlocked South Sudan, but transported, refined, and exported through Sudan.
Rice had crafted the draft in a way that could maximize pressure on Khartoum to withdraw its security forces from the disputed territory of Abyei, to provide access for U.N. humanitarian workers seeking to distribute humanitarian assistance in the conflict zones of South Kordofan and Blue Nile state. But it also deplored the presence of South Sudanese national police in Abyei, and urged both sides to refrain from hostilities.
Moscow had initially blocked the U.S. initiative on the grounds that it was too tough on Khartoum, but not tough enough on South Sudan. But on Friday of last week, Russia had reached agreement in principle with Rice to support the American measure.
The deal, however, was never concluded. Over the weekend, Sudan and South Sudan reached agreement on a deal setting the stage for the establishment of a demilitarized zone between the two countries and an oil pact that will allow for the resumption of oil exports for the first time since January 2012, when South Sudan halted production to protest what they believed were excessive transport fees charged by the Sudanese government.
Rice told reporters that she had intended to update the statement to reflect the latest agreement, but that Churkin abruptly introduced his own press statement welcoming the latest agreement and stripping out any language criticizing Khartoum's shortcomings on other fronts. Rice suggested that Russia, which has more limited interests in the Sudans than the United States, is performing the role of diplomatic spoiler in the council.
"We were close to agreement on that, and we were ready to update it to take account of recent events," Rice told reporters. "Unfortunately, perhaps in the interest of derailing such a PRST [Presidential statement], the Russian federation, which does not typically utilize the pen on South Sudan or Sudan, tabled a draft press statement, which only discussed a very narrow aspect of the substance of the larger ... statement and excluded language on the two areas, excluded mention of the cross border incidents, including aerial bombardment."
Churkin insisted that his intentions were pure, and that he was merely seeking to send a swift message of support to the Sudanese parties.
"Ambassador Rice chose to spill out to the media some confidential conversations we had today and actually did it in a rather bizarre way, from what I hear,' he told reporters. "I think the reaction of the U.S. delegation was not reasonable. And as a result of that we were not able to have any agreed reaction from the council today."
"This was not a constructive way to deal with the work in the Security Council," he added. "Trying to find all sorts of ulterior motives and come up with various outlandish accusations is not the best way to deal with your partners in the Security Council. I know it's not a good way to deal with the Russian delegation."
Some U.N. diplomats believe that Churkin is actually trying to provoke his American counterpart and that his tough line reflects an increasingly combative foreign policy approach being pursued by Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Russia is taking on an increasingly nationalistic foreign policy and Churkin's instructions reflect that," said one council diplomat.
But others fault the Americans for refusing to compromise with Russia in order to maintain pressure on Sudan and South Sudan to comply with their commitments. They say Rice's insistence on tough denunciations of Khartoum, while merited, have resulted in the council's inability to weigh in on many key aspects of the crisis since May 2012, when the council last threatened sanctions against the two sides if they failed to live up to their commitments. The United States "has been using a bazooka when they should stick with a pistol," said one U.N. insider. "Everyone knows how bad [Sudanese President Omar] Bashir is, but does it need to be put in every statement?"
A U.S. official countered that the U.S. has been even handed. "The United States is focused on resolving critical issues that risk another war between Sudan and South Sudan and have a huge human cost," said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for Rice, noting that hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese civilians are "enduring a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions. We believe the Security Council should hold the parties accountable, as appropriate for fulfilling their obligations. When Khartoum or Juba is cuplable, we think the council needs to apply pressure, as needed."
Russia, meanwhile, has been nursing its own grievances toward the government in Juba since 2011, when the South Sudanese authorities detained a Russian helicopter crew. Moscow unsuccessfully sought U.S. support for a statement criticizing the South's action. Then, to make matters worse, last year, South Sudanese army forces shot down a U.N. helicopter piloted by a 4-man Russian crew, who were all killed in the incident. In that instance, the U.S. supported a council statement deploring the shooting, and demanding that those responsible for the shooting be held accountable.
More recently, Russia accused the United States of blocking a Security Council statement condemning a terror bombing near the Russian embassy in Damascus.
"We believe these are double standards," Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said last month. "And we see in it a very dangerous tendency by our American colleagues to depart from the fundamental principle of unconditional condemnation of any terrorist act, a principle which secures the unity of the international community in the fight against terrorism," he said.
A spokeswoman for Rice, Erin Pelton, countered that assessment, saying that the United States was willing to support the Russian initiative if it included a reference to President Bashar al-Assad's government's "brutal attacks against the Syrian people. If predictably, Russia rejected the U.S. suggested language as "totally unacceptable" and withdrew its draft statement."
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There are countless ways in which warfare debases a society. In Syria, perhaps one of the more glaring is the politicization of medical care.
The Syrian government has systematically denied life-saving medical care to civilians suspected of sympathizing with the country's insurgency, according to a report released today by a Geneva-based U.N. Commission of Inquiry. Syrian doctors, it added, have expressed a "well-founded fear of punishment" if they are found to have treated an enemy combatant, according to the report's findings
The anti-government opposition has not been without blame. The report suggests medical personnel live in fear of abduction by armed opposition groups who suspect they are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's government.
"One of the most alarming features of the conflict has been the use of medical care as a tactic of war," the report stated. "Medical personnel and hospitals have been deliberately targeted and are treated by the parties to the conflict as military objectives. Medical access has been denied on real or perceived political and sectarian grounds."
In an example of the risks to medical personnel, the U.N. commission reported Syrian government forces in December shelled hospitals in the Yarmouk camp, a district in Damascus that houses Syria's largest Palestinian population. In Daraa, Syrian interviewees told U.N. investigators that "official hospitals were permitted to treat only members of Government forces and their supporters." Inside hospitals, security forces carry out interrogations and arrests of patients suspects of supporting the rebellion. Sunni Muslims, who make up the vast majority of Syria's population and of the opposition, are routinely abused by Syrian government forces while receiving medical care.
The issue of medical care may have played a role in last week's U.N. hostage crisis. The U.N.'s captors, which identified themselves as the Yarmouk Martyrs brigade, initially protested that it had seized the 21 Filipino peacekeepers because they were providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian forces they were battling in the area. U.N. sources said that the peacekeepers in the Golan Heights had provided medical care to wounded Syrian soldiers, but they said that they had done the same in the past for wounded rebels.
Today's 10-page report provides a grisly snapshot of life in war-wracked Syria, where massacres are routine, extremist violence is on the rise, war profiteers exact greater exact increasing costs on desperate civilians, and bakeries and funeral processions have become military targets.
The Syrian government and its paramilitary allies continue to bear responsibility for the most serious crimes, according to the report, which cites an intensification of indiscriminate shelling, airstrikes, and the use of surface-to-surface missiles against targets in heavily populated civilian areas. One missile strike alone in Aleppo on Feb. 18 "is reported to have killed over 200 people." Four days later, another deadly missile strike killed at least 50 people, including children. "Insider accounts detail Syrian Air Force commanders giving orders to shell entire areas of Aleppo city without discriminating between civilian and military objectives," according to the report.
But the armed opposition is also behaving badly, recruiting child soldiers, beating suspected government sympathizers at checkpoints, and routinely seizing hostages for ransom.
"One interviewee," the report stated, "speaking about events in Jdeida, Damascus governate, said that kidnappings by armed groups had become ‘common' and had focussed on ‘the Christian community', as they were known as goldsmiths and were able to pay the ransoms."
The report claims that anti-government armed groups have also acquired increasingly more sophisticated weaponry in recent weeks, but that their "lack of expertise and training often results in disproportionate and indiscriminate use and fewer precautions taken to protect civilians."
The commission said it is continuing to investigate reports that the armed opposition umbrella organization, the Free Syrian Army, carried out mortar attacks on Mushrefa, an Alawite village in Homs, which appears to have directly targeted the civilian population." The report also signaled out a number of bombings in Syria by extremists groups, including the Al Nusra Front, in Damascus and other heavily populated areas.
Even more alarming, the violence in Syria is taking on an increasingly sectarian character as Syrian forces and their armed allies target civilians on the basis of religion and ethnicity, according to the report.
"In a disturbing and dangerous trend, mass killings allegedly perpetrated by [government-supported] Popular Committee have at times taken on sectarian overtones," the report stated. The U.N. commission also cited reports that armed opposition groups have been targeting Shiite and Alawite communities in Damascus, Homs and Daara. "The taking and holding of hostages along communal lines by armed groups has risen sharply in recent months."
"The conflict continues to be waged by both Government forces and anti-government armed groups with insufficient respect for the protection of the civilian population," the report concludes. "A failure to resolve this increasingly violent conflict will condemn Syria, the region and the millions of civilians caught in the crossfire to an unimaginably bleak future."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.